Clifford, Ernest Hemingway and me

I am not like Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway believed that every writer needed luck, and he acknowledged that he was frequently lucky but he was always expecting his luck to run out.

In 1922, working as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway traveled to Lausanne to cover the Peace Conference, and afterwards arranged to meet his wife Hadley in the Austrian ski town of Schruns for some seasonal schussing. For two years he’d been working on a number of short stories and several chapters of a first novel. He hadn’t yet published any fiction and was forever noodling away and revising and rewriting, and Hadley thought he might like to have them in Schruns. As she was leaving their Paris apartment she packed the originals into a brown leather valise and then, in one of those decisions that afterwards you can never adequately explain, even to yourself, she packed the carbon copies too.

At the Gare de Lyon, Hadley left the luggage in her train compartment and popped out onto the platform to buy a bottle of Evian water. When she returned, the valise was gone. When she arrived tearfully in Schruns and confessed what had happened, Hemingway spiraled into darkness. Two years of work, all his hopes and labour, all gone. You can’t write a story a second time, he said. All its juice is lost forever. He never advertised for the return of the valise, or posted a reward. When something is gone, he thought, it’s gone for good. (Later, in a short story, he would write “Nothing is ever lost”, but he meant the experiences of life, not luggage.)

This week I flew into O R Tambo Airport in Johannesburg on my way to a meeting. In one of those decisions that afterwards I can never adequately explain, even to myself, I took my laptop out of my brown leather valise and placed it in the basket of the luggage trolley.

I loaded the bags into the rental car and drove off, thinking the usual things you think in a car on a Johannesburg highway, ie. “No one in real life can really be as cretinous as these radio DJs appear to be and still keep a job, so perhaps I am asleep and dreaming this, or maybe I’m having having a stroke.” It was only as I walked through the grounds of Sasani studios thinking how light my brown leather valise was feeling – lighter to the tune of one laptop – that it occurred to me what I had done.

I sat thoughtfully in my meeting, nodding as people spoke and sometimes clearing my throat in agreement, but really my mind was scrolling through the contents of my laptop, itemizing what was on it (everything), wondering why I have never bothered to back it up (because I’m too lazy), and speculating about how I would write my column this week without my laptop. As I sat there, nodding, itemizing, wondering and speculating, my phone kept ringing, and I kept canceling the call. A ringing phone is never good news, especially with numbers you don’t recognize. Answering anonymous calls is how they brought down Al Capone in the end.

An hour later it was ringing for the eleventh time and I needed a break from the meeting, so I pressed the phone to my ear and bowed my head with a furrowed brow and strode briskly from the room in that universal pose that people use to signal to the rest of the meeting that this is a call so urgent and vital that the economy itself will collapse if I don’t answer it.

It was Clifford calling from Europcar. He had found my laptop in the trolley next to parking bay A24. He didn’t know whose laptop it was, or how to look through it for a clue, but he went to the rental desk and they searched to see who had been allocated the car that had been parked in A24. Actually he’d first tried A23, and when I hadn’t answered the first five or six calls, he’d tried A25 and A26, just in case.

Clifford wasn’t there when I went to pick up the laptop. He had knocked off work, so he left it with Elias, who very proudly presented it to me. As I walked back through the parking garage to the car, all the Europcar employees beamed to see the laptop tucked under my arm.

“Ah!” said the guy with the clipboard. “You have found it!”

I have been away from South Africa for the past four months, and I’ll be leaving again today for another three, and I’m glad that I’ll be going with the fresh reminder that I’m not like Ernest Hemingway: I don’t think there’s a finite amount of good luck in the world, because I don’t believe there’s a finite number of good people in the world. Gone things aren’t always gone forever, and there is no limit to the number of miracles we can expect, big and small. Maybe that’s even more true in South Africa.

Times, 8 August 2018