‘If only that carpet could talk, the tales it would tell!’ But the Chikupi carpet was not going to talk, not just then, and nor was Ethnée Holmes à Court – well, not till I’d promised the carpet’s tales would remain within her cottage walls.
The carpet in question is a huge antique Persian that had spent many decades covering the lounge floor of a Zambian ranch – and which became famous for, well, lounging on in the early morning hours after one or another of the many house parties in the African bush. The story of how it came to be in Ethnée’s possession is told in Heytesbury Stud, but what I didn’t know then was that the Chikupi carpet and I would go on to spin tales of our own.
It was the last day of my ghosting assignment for Ethnée, the final draft approved, the last cheque written when she turned to me: ‘I’d like to give you something. Something with more meaning than money,’ she’d added. I hesitated. Like most of us, I’m not good at asking, but there was something she’d spoken of so often… ‘Ah yes,’ she said, her eyes glinting. ‘The Chikupi carpet. Let’s go and see if we can dig it out.’
A short while later we were in a shed at Heytesbury gazing down at a giant Persian carpet tightly rolled in a dusty corner. Her eyes glittered. She unrolled part of it with her foot. ‘Needs a good clean, that’s all.’
The invitation to write Ethnée’s second book had come about through an introduction by my good friend, the designer and glass artist Jill Yelland. ‘Ethnée Holmes à Court wants a ghostwriter and you write,’ she’d said. ‘And since you’ve both had several husbands, I thought you were a natural fit.’
Jill was spot-on. We were a good fit – not necessarily (or only) because of the husbands but because we discovered that we were born in the same part of Africa, were both passionate about horses. While Ethnée’s first book was about her time in southern Africa, she wanted this project to cover the second phase of her life – Western Australia and the founding of the renowned horse stud in which she played such a vital role: Heytesbury.
We liked each other instantly and fell into a routine just as easily. We started by sketching a framework of what we planned to cover. I had decided that alongside my PhD, tutoring and other commitments, I could draft a chapter a week so the way we worked was this: Ethnée would list the points she wanted me to write up and we’d sit side by side at the dining table of her little cottage to discuss them over many cups of tea before we filled out my picture of her past with walks and drives around the stud. When I think back to those weekly sessions, I remember lots of laughs and the unvarying diet of rather good egg sandwiches for lunch intently watched by ridgeback Lara and visited from time to time by Burmese Zhivago. I’d drive back to Perth, throbbing with ideas, mull and write over the next few days while back at the Stud, she would jot down the points she wanted to expand on the following week. It was an achievable formula that worked well for both of us.
I’ve often been asked what it’s like to be a ghostwriter and three points stand out. The first is that you are a ‘ghost’ – a privileged and (often) well-paid position – and while the writing is yours, that writing is subject to the tone, voice and character of the client. Secondly, what goes into and what stays out of the book is not your call. A ghostwriter, by definition and usually by deed, is anonymous: in the case of the Heytesbury book, I took up Ethnée’s offer of a byline. But if you’re the type of writer compelled to tell all –which, granted, very often makes a juicier tale – tackling an unauthorised biography might be the way to go. Thirdly, in my opinion, I can’t see how you can write someone’s story without liking, admiring – or at least respecting – your subject. Ghostwriting is not prescriptive – as in taking down an oral history, for example.
The carpet’s story
I could call it coincidence – that uncanny juxtaposition of events that occurred some years ago – a call from Ethnée just as Richard and I were unrolling the Chikupi carpet to cover the cold and inhospitable concrete floor of our new home. It had been unusual for her to call in all our working relationship and rarer still after the book was published. That day, she was confused and in great distress. ‘Something terrible’s happened,’ she said. ‘You have to help me. Come. Come now.’
This is not the place to describe the depth of her anguish, nor the effect it had on me. Suffice to say that this third and last phase of her life was to be as much or perhaps more of a challenge than anything that had gone before. Eventually she rose to it with her usual courage. She died last month.
My working relationship with Ethnée could be compared to riding one of her racehorses bareback, without a bridle and at great speed through untamed bush – an explosion of adrenalin and admiration. Of the several strong and fabulous women I have known, know and greatly admire, she was one.
Vale, Ethnée. May you rest in peace among the people, the horses and the pets you have loved.
Some years later, my own disturbance wrote itself out in And the Day After That. This is not Ethnée’s story, but the carpet and I grant that there are similarities in the circumstance.
Pic: Antique Persian carpet by PhilipCacka iStock Photos