He came into my cell this morning. No knock, no announcement, just the approaching beat of nailed boots on a concrete floor, the oiled fuss of several keys in several locks, then the door swinging open, and Davies entering with a casual, off-hand saunter that contrasted with the military stiffness of the armed guards who preceded him. I was still in bed at this point, even though it was several hours after breakfast, and out of a sort of panic I decided to feign sleep, and lay there with my face half turned into the pillow, allowing a little dribble of saliva to roll off my lolling tongue.
‘Lieutenant Brill,’ he said, in quietly amused officer tones, making it obvious that he recognized my fakery, ‘your snoring is most convincing, but I could see that your eye was open as I entered the room.’
The problem of pretending to be asleep is having to carry through the whole charade of waking up, which is somewhat harder to fake. How should one play it – the sudden startled bolt into the vertical, or the long, slow dredging of the self from the depths of dreamlessness? I went for the slower option, gradually lifting my head from the pillow, sucking in my remaining spit and blinking in the glare of Davies’s uniform.
He was in full officer dress – Sam Browne, Brassoed buttons, a strip of medals, pips. He held his peaked cap beneath his left arm, along with a cardboard folder of documents. He smelt of snuffed candles.
‘So sorry if I’ve disturbed your sleep, but I thought you would be up and about by now. I would call back later but I’m rather rushed. Would you mind getting up and dressed, so that we can talk properly?’
I looked around for my clothes. I had rather carelessly left them in a heap on the floor by the bottom of the bed. I had nothing on beneath my blanket. It had been a stiflingly hot night. Davies followed my gaze and recognized my concern. Wordlessly I hinted that he might do me the favour of picking up my clothes and passing them to me. He in turn gestured for one of the guards to do the deed, and the fellow promptly shouldered his tommy gun and bent down to pick up my things, handling them with arm’s-length distaste, and depositing them on my bed. Seeming to think that this was sufficient, all three stood in a row and watched me, like an audience at a late-night cabaret.
‘Am I allowed no privacy?’ I said.
Davies smiled. ‘After all these years in the army, you expect privacy?’ He indicated with a wave of the fingertips that the guards could wait outside, and when they had gone he turned half away, so that he was facing the little window, high in the wall, which revealed nothing but sky. I struggled to dress while concealed beneath my blanket. Davies spoke without looking at me: ‘This obstinate modesty of yours is rather touching. It’s not something I would have expected of you. Not with your record.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
Davies went over to the small, bare table and placed his folder there. ‘Though, on the other hand, perhaps your work in the Camouflage Corps has given you an instinctive urge for concealment. I imagine to be a successful camoufleur one must have a predilection for privacy. To be obsessive about it, even. It seems to go against the natural instincts of display and advertisement, the urge to announce one’s existence to the world. Did you ever struggle with that contradiction?’
By now I had pulled on my trousers and the dirty pullover that was too hot for the room (but they would supply me with nothing else). Davies’s remarks about concealment had put me half in mind of presenting my naked self to him, dropping the blanket and standing to attention by my bed, everything on display. How would he have liked that? I wondered.
‘The only contradiction I’ve struggled with is that of a soldier who has served his country with distinction in one of the cruellest theatres of war and now finds himself incarcerated in a dirty little cell for no good reason at all. That’s not just a contradiction, but a damned affront. An insult.’
‘Sit,’ Davies said, pointing to the bed. I had taken some steps forward and had raised my voice. I must have looked as if I was about to lose my temper. He reminded me that the guards were outside, and I sat meekly on the bed while he leafed through some of the documents he had extracted from his folder.
‘By the way,’ I said, ‘I think it’s quite ridiculous that you should think it necessary to have an armed escort when you come to my cell. What sort of person do you think I am?’
Davies smiled again. ‘That is precisely what I’m here to find out. In the meantime, you mustn’t mind the guards. This is a high-security establishment. Armed guards are the norm.’
‘And what have I done that is so dangerous that I need to be locked up twenty-four hours a day, with a guard outside my door?’
‘The charges have been explained to you, have they not?’ ‘They are absurd charges. And what do you think I’m going to do? Escape? You think I’ll just disappear?’
‘Well,’ Davies laughed, ‘that is your job, as you put it yourself.
You make things disappear. Whole armies, so you claim. What leads a man into a profession like that – to be so dedicated to the arts of deception? Was it anything to do with your father, perhaps?’
‘My father? What has he got to do with it?’
‘One of the increasing number of things we know about you is that you are the son of a man who spent some of his working life as a stage conjuror.’
I was momentarily stumped by this turn in the conversation. Very few people knew about my father’s remote past; I myself had only learnt of his music-hall career a few years previously; that Davies should know about it was the first indication of the thoroughness with which they intended to conduct their investigation. Had they been to my father’s house? Had they interrogated my innocent parents in their own home? Or, more worryingly, had they been arrested as well, to be held in some similarly bleak cell? I tried changing the subject.
‘Do you have any idea what would have happened if we had lost at El Alamein? There was no other defendable line west of Suez. If we had failed, Egypt would have fallen, and without our foothold there, we might well have lost the whole of the Middle East. The Nazis would have taken control of the oil supplies, and could have marched eastwards to India, just as Napoleon had once dreamed, to capture the pride of our empire and meet the Japanese coming the other way. The Axis could have taken the whole land mass from Calais to the Bering Straits. And I heard that from the lips of General Auchinleck himself, outside an officer’s tent on the edge of Benghazi.’
‘Ah, yes, the battle of El Alamein in which you, as a camouflage officer, played such a vital role.’
It was always hard to tell when Davies was being sarcastic. ‘Churchill himself praised our contribution…’ I was going to go on to quote his speech, which I had off by heart: ‘The Xth Corps, which the enemy had seen from the air exercising fifty miles in the rear, moved silently away in the night, but leaving an exact simulacrum of its tanks where it had been, and proceeded to its point of attack…’
‘I just want to know how long I’m going to be kept here.’ Davies seemed not to hear and looked about the cell again, squinting closely at the walls. He touched the painted plaster with his fingertips and looked to see if it left a mark on his skin. Then he sat on the cell’s only chair.
‘You will be kept here for as long as it’s deemed necessary.’
‘But this is so damned ridiculous,’ I said, raising my voice again. ‘All I was doing was painting a picture. I’ve told you I’m an artist. Imprisoning an artist is a crime! It is murdering life in the bud!’
‘Even if that artist is a spy?’
I was exasperated, and made no reply other than a moan of disbelief. I felt confused, unfocused. Since my arrest I had been cut off from all contact with the outside world and could only tell if it was day or night from the colour of the window.
‘As I’ve said before, I don’t see how the innocent act of painting a landscape can be construed as a form of spying.’
‘And as I’ve said to you before, that landscape you happened to be painting is an area of extreme strategic sensitivity.’ Davies said this with the patience of a Sunday-school teacher explaining Heaven to a little boy. ‘Those few dirty fields you were painting in such detail are shortly to become one of the biggest military air bases in Europe. That land has all been requisitioned by the Air Ministry. There are notices to the effect all around the site. It has been said that you were earlier seen painting a view which included a squad of sappers digging a tank trap. I fail to understand how any artist could, on the one hand, find anything of artistic value in such a subject, and on the other, not realize they were doing something that could be construed as spying.’
I could tell that Davies was not a bully or a man without a sense of humour. He seemed to be roughly my age, perhaps even younger. He had the rosy knuckles and slender fingers of someone raised in a soft, comfortable household. His Adam’s apple bobbed awkwardly in periods of silence. Whatever he was doing, whatever his role in this ridiculous affair, I suspected it was his first time. I began laughing.
‘What are you laughing at?’
‘I’m just trying to imagine myself posting one of my four-foot-by-three-foot oils on canvas to my accomplice in Germany, then a German bomber crew using it as they fly over to bomb the fields of cabbages. Would they have it mounted on an easel at the back of the cockpit, do you think?’
Davies appeared to ignore my musings, or at least to hear them only with his ears.
‘You would be surprised, or perhaps not, at the lengths to which people go to convey secrets to the enemy. I’ve seen coded messages in the flecks of paint on a ceramic vase. I’ve seen map co-ordinates carved in mother-of-pearl on an inlaid vanity case. You would not be the first artist to put his skills to the service of espionage. And, I can assure you, your paintings are at this moment being examined in microscopic detail for any additional coded information. Perhaps you need reminding of the consequences if any such information is found.’
‘No, I don’t. And I can guarantee you that there is nothing in those paintings that could be of any use to the enemy.’
Our eyes met each other’s and locked themselves in a stare for several seconds. Davies’s Adam’s apple bobbed. So did mine, I expect.
‘So tell me again why you were out there in the middle of those godforsaken fields. In my humble opinion as someone who has had no artistic training, the landscape you were painting has no aesthetic value whatsoever. Is there an antonym for “picturesque”? If so, then those fields exemplify it perfectly.’
His provocative dismissal of the landscape of my childhood couldn’t help but arouse a passion of indignation in me. ‘Those godforsaken fields, as you call them, happen to be very important to me. I have known them since childhood. I have played in them, worked in them, wandered in them…’ I paused, remembering to keep my voice down. I continued in a more conversational tone. Davies could be reached, I believed, if one trod the path of reason and common sense. He didn’t respond well to outbursts of passionate rage. ‘When I returned from Egypt I was quite horrified and heartbroken to discover that they are shortly to be destroyed by your Air Ministry, and that my father’s house and all his land are to be swept away – you have ruined my father’s fortune. But how can you comprehend the pain and struggle he has gone through to acquire it? Fighting all his life to claim his right to the land that has now been so callously and heartlessly taken from him. Not just that but our house as well – the whole village, the whole district. All those pretty cottages. That is why I was out in those godforsaken fields. I was trying to make a record of them before they are gone. Oh, you are such fools. You claim to be fighting for the English way of life while behind the scenes you are casually destroying that way of life.’
I had not managed to keep my voice under control. One of the guards opened the cell door and looked in. He glanced at Davies, who gave him a reassuring nod, and the guard resumed his post outside.
‘Yes, very moving. But I’m glad you mentioned your father again. Tell me some more about his time as a stage magician. Did he teach you any of his tricks? I’m sure he must have entertained you in the evenings with some card magic when you were little. Or the rabbit from the hat, perhaps.’
‘I’ll tell you the biggest trick,’ I carried on as before, assured, since the exchange of glances between Davies and the guard, that I was permitted to shout as much as I liked. ‘The Air Ministry said it wouldn’t pay him anything for his land because he didn’t have any receipts. Receipts! Who do they think he is? The postmaster-general? The land came to him through his stepbrother, Tiberius Joy. Old enemies for many years, it was their final act of reconciliation. There were no documents, of course not. It was a gentlemen’s agreement. But what would people like you know about that? He’s ruined. Completely ruined, and taken away from the land he has loved all his life, and his ancestors before him…’
I stopped, realizing I was not doing myself any good at all. I was coming across as someone who had a deep grudge against the British government. Davies saw how I checked myself and read my mind perfectly. He gave a half-smile as he always did at such moments.
‘So perhaps you would prefer it if that land and all the land that surrounds it were to be swept away instead by a tide of Nazi jackboots?’
I sighed. The war had become a religion. To question its strategy was like questioning the tenets of a faith, and no matter from which angle you examined it, no matter which argument you followed, it always came back to the same question: are you a believer or a non-believer? As such, it allowed for no argument, no discussion.
The folder Davies was leafing through looked alarmingly thick. I could glimpse densely typed pages, reports, charts, stamped documents. Davies continued, ‘I would find your story easier to believe if your record hadn’t thrown up so many surprises. I am assuming you are the same Kenneth Brill who was arrested in London in 1937 and charged with giving false information to the police. And again in 1939 – for an act of trespass in a royal household. The Palace, no less. Apart from that, your record shows that you seem to have an unstickable quality. You cannot stay in one place for very long before you are either dismissed or you disappear.’
This put me in mind of my father’s little magic shows. Davies was correct – there were ad hoc performances at the dinner table after one of Mrs Rossiter’s heavy puddings. He did the usual things a father will do to try to amaze a child. The difference was that he had skill. He had legerdemain. He was practised in the arts of misdirection. He could juggle five objects. He made coins appear from behind my ears, cut a string into little worms that miraculously became whole again. Then one day, with a wave of his magic fingers and a whispered shazam, he made me disappear. I looked at myself and declared that he had failed. ‘Who said that?’ he replied, looking right through me. ‘Of course you can still see yourself, but no one else can. Where are you?’ And he looked about the room for me, waving his hand, like a man in the dark, in the space just beside me.
‘Your vanishings have been a noticeable theme in your life, wouldn’t you say? Expelled from your primary school, St Saviour’s, in Sipson. Expelled from the Slade School of Art. Dismissed from Berryman’s Academy. Invalided home from the army.’
‘Now look here, you can’t try to bring my army career into this catalogue of “vanishings”, as you call them. I was wounded during active service. My war record is exemplary. Just because you have so little regard for the importance of camouflage.’
‘I have the highest regard.’
‘Then why do you have that smirk on your face?’
‘Well, it’s probably unfair of me, but I can’t help being amused at the thought of a camouflage officer getting shot at. The last person you would expect to become a target.’
‘Have you ever been shot?’
Davies didn’t answer, though his smirk slowly left his face. He perused my notes again. ‘Can you recall the circumstances of your injury?’
‘No. I wasn’t even aware I’d been shot until someone noticed the blood on my trousers. Would you like to see the scar?’
To my surprise Davies said that, yes, he would like to see the scar, so I stood up and unbuttoned my trousers, lowering them to within a half-inch of decency. ‘The bullet went in here, missing my pride and joy by a matter of inches.’ The wound was now hardly visible, a little circle of slightly brighter, shinier skin, just above the pubic area. I turned round to show Davies the exit wound, in the lower portion of my right buttock. It made rather a mockery of my previous shyness about getting dressed, and I looked at him over my shoulder, wondering what he would make of such proximity to my nakedness. But, then, what was I expecting – that he should become nervous and breathless, hot under the collar? That he should begin panting, salivating? He did nothing of the sort, but examined my wounds with the detached curiosity of a doctor.
‘Nasty,’ he said. ‘I should think sitting down was rather painful for a while.’
‘The bullet missed my bladder by a quarter of an inch, but perforated my lower bowel. This was what caused the blood poisoning that nearly killed me.’
‘Yes, I see. How long were you in hospital for?’
‘Doesn’t it say in your notes? After being patched up in a dressing station I was in the British Military Hospital in Alexandria for nine months. Then, for reasons I was never quite clear about, I was moved to a sanatorium in Palestine. For a while I could identify all the songbirds of Galilee. By that time I was considered fit enough to make the journey back. The Med was safe, so I sailed home the short way. Convalesced for another six months in Ashleigh, a little place in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. From there I went home.’
‘What are those other scars? The ones higher up?’ Davies appeared not to have listened to a word of my medical history.
‘Pretty nasty injury. Turn around again. I’m not a medical man but it looks like another bullet passed right through. There’s a wound on both sides.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘not a bullet wound. I was impaled on a sword. Missed my vital organs by a hair’s breadth again.’
‘Quite incredible,’ said Davies. ‘To survive one such injury is lucky enough, but to be run through twice and live to tell the tale.’
‘But I haven’t told the tale. Not yet.’
‘No. Well, there’s plenty of time for that, I suppose. But there is one thing that puzzles me about your desert injury.’
‘Well, according to all the records and reports, your squad wasn’t under fire at the time. Nor was it engaged in any action with the enemy.’
‘Well, that’s just according to the reports. In fact, your injury was sustained a full two days before battle commenced.’
‘Like I said, that’s ridiculous. There were all sorts of skirmishes before the main battle began. Little raiding parties, reconnaissance parties – the dunes were crawling with enemy patrols.’
‘And one of them opened fire on you?’
‘Yes. Several of us were ambushed by a raiding party in some dunes south of Martello. Bullets were flying everywhere. Bloody good camouflage – it was as though the sand had suddenly turned against us. As I said, I didn’t even realize I’d been shot until it was all over.’
‘Was anyone else injured?’
‘Was a Mr Arturo Somarco among your group?’
I hadn’t heard that name mentioned for a very long time. I tried not to wince too visibly. ‘Somarco. Yes, Somarco was there. He wasn’t injured. Somarco could never be injured.’
‘A friend from your art-student days, I believe.’
‘In fact, your tutor.’
‘Along with most of the others in your squad. Alfred Knell. Captain Learmouth. Quite a pals’ regiment.’
‘Well, when Learmouth was asked to assemble a team, naturally he turned to people he knew. We weren’t all from the Slade, at least not later.’
‘ “Arturo Somarco” doesn’t exactly sound like a full-blooded English name, does it?’
‘Neither does “Davies”.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Somarco’s ancestors span the Mediterranean – he is half Italian, half Spanish. But he was born and raised in England.’
‘And you and he worked closely together?’
‘Yes. In the beginning there were just four of us in charge of camouflage for the whole of the Middle East. It was madness. Once, when we were recceing the region, we divided the map into three and took a kingdom each, like Lear’s children. Somarco and I were given the whole of Libya to survey, which we did while trying to catch up with the Army of the Nile. Knell took Egypt down as far as the Sudan while Learmouth had Sinai, Palestine and Syria. We had to kidnap people to become our assistants, borrow planes and pilots. Oddly enough, Somarco could fly – he’d been trained in the RAF before recruitment to the Camouflage Corps. That gives you an indication of how highly camouflage came to be regarded. They sacrificed a trained pilot for the sake of it.’
I wonder if Davies is a musical man. From his whistle, I would think not. But, then, why must he insist on whistling? He whistles like my father, flat and tunelessly. That was my father’s weak spot – a lack of musical ability. He had the dancing, the patter, the jokes, the tricks, but not the songs.
Oh it’s easy to be gay If you but try,
And here’s a simple way Just do the same as I
I love to whistle
Because it makes me merry, Makes me feel so very… Da da da da daaaaaah
They have refused, so far, to tell me where I am. If I stand on the chair I can see out of the window. I appear to be in one of those new, cheaply built army bases, all low-roofed anonymity, half-cylinders of corrugated iron that have somehow been thickened and coated so that they resemble permanent buildings. In the distance there are low, bald hills, which strongly suggest chalk downland. I imagine we are somewhere in Wiltshire.
I have become very attentive to noise, and the sounds produced by the base. It is mostly very quiet, but certain noises recur regularly. The grind and growl of a heavy vehicle. A sudden burst of dogs barking in the distance. A gramophone playing an aria from The Gondoliers. Always the same aria.
The next time I saw Davies it was in the small interview room that was our usual place for meetings. It was still thought necessary to handcuff me when out of my cell, and the two armed guards were their familiar silent selves. The corridors reeked of iodine. I was told to sit at a table. It was about forty minutes before Davies arrived.
‘So sorry to keep you,’ he said, focusing on me more closely than before, as he took his seat opposite me. I felt bashful under the intensity of his gaze. Then, seeming to realize the oddness of his behaviour, he said, ‘Pardon my curiosity. I’m just wondering if there’s anything in your face that betrays your ancestry.’
‘Yes. Certain anthropologists say the individual races of mankind can be identified by cranial and facial bone structure, but I always wonder if Jewishness counts as a race or a religion, or both.’
‘You think I’m Jewish?’
‘Are you saying you’re not?’
‘Why on earth would you think I am? And what has it got to do with anything anyway?’
‘Well, actually I didn’t think you were, until I looked into your school records.’ He opened the folder he had brought with him again, took out a document and held it up at close enough range for me to read the large lettering on the heading.
‘Jacob College,’ he said, ‘your school report, where it says you excelled at art, drama, ballroom dancing and Hebrew. Well done, Lieutenant Brill. This is an exceptionally good report. Dr Merryman writes at the bottom, “Young Kenneth is a dedicated and studious young man, popular with his classmates. Well done, Kenny.”’
‘Merryman wrote that on every report, word for word. No one ever called me Kenny at school.’
Davies readjusted himself on the chair, sat up straight and smart, like a good schoolboy, then raised a hand to his chin and tapped his lips with an index finger, in a carefully practised portrait of thoughtfulness. ‘So why do you deny that you are Jewish?’
‘Because I’m not. Jacob College was a Jewish school in name and curriculum only. The school was set up by a foundation in the nineteenth century to serve a local Jewish community that has since moved away. Places were filled by gentiles until, by the time I got there, there was hardly a Jew in the place, either among the pupils or the staff.’
‘That sounds very odd. A whole school devoted to teaching a faith in which no one in the school believed. Can it really be the case?’
‘Well, that’s how it seemed. To be honest, I paid no attention to whether teachers or pupils were Jewish or not. It wasn’t something that entered my thoughts. All I know is that no one seemed much bothered about teaching religious subjects. If that report says I did well in Hebrew, it’s a lie. I never had a lesson in Hebrew in my life. The success of the subject was a fabrication to keep the foundation happy.’
‘We’ve spoken to Dr Merryman. He says there were and are Jewish children at Jacob College. He said the Jewish children were often targets of bullying. I asked him if he knew who the bullies were, and your name was mentioned.’
I could hardly speak for a few moments. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘It’s all on record, Lieutenant Brill.’
‘I’ve never bullied anyone. This is outrageous. Dr Merryman must be an old man by now – he’s getting me mixed up with other people. If you are trying to fit me up with anti-Semitic sympathies, you will fail, I can assure you. The situation was quite the opposite – I was as much bullied as those others you speak of, when out of school and wearing my yarmulke, by local boys on my way home. Spat at in the marketplace, mud thrown at me on the Heath. It got so bad I had to stop wearing it. I have much sympathy for the suffering of the Jews under the Nazi regime, having been given the merest hint of what life for them might be like.’
‘And were you happy at Jacob College? Was it a good school?’ ‘Of course I was happy there. After the brutal philistinism of St Saviour’s, it was a paradise. I came under the spell of a truly wonderful art teacher, Mr Toynbee.’
‘Dr Merryman says he always had misgivings about admitting you to the school because you and your mother had lied about your reasons for leaving your first school. You told him you had been expelled for fighting, whereas he learnt that you had stabbed a boy, had stripped him and locked him in the school toilets.’
Quite a picture, I could now see, was beginning to emerge from Davies’s preliminary investigations. Over the next few days more details were gleaned. He had people running up and down the country conducting interviews with my old teachers, work colleagues, former friends. They were going through records, looking up articles.
‘At the Slade you were expelled because, among other things, you and your mentor Mr Somarco were running a brothel for students in Old Compton Street. At Berryman’s School in Somerset, where you were art master, you were dismissed after an act of immoral conduct. In 1939 you were found near the King’s apartments in Buckingham Palace. For this offence you served a term in prison, didn’t you, Lieutenant Brill? If we combine this catalogue of delinquencies with your affiliations and associations with known anti-Semites and pro-Fascist movements – for instance you spent a spell as what you called artistin-residence at Hillmead Manor, run by the self-acknowledged Fascist sympathizer Rufus Quayle, and your friend Mr Somarco, we believe, has or had strong links with the Hitler Youth movement in Germany. I could go on, Lieutenant Brill. How about Mr Kuratowski? Remember him? Your first art master at Jacob College. He and his family died when their house burnt down in 1931. You say there were no Jews in Jacob College. Well, Mr Kuratowski was one.’
The climax of this tirade had Davies at his most animated. I had not heard him raise his voice before, and though he wasn’t exactly shouting, he was voluble enough to send a shiver through me, banging certain supposedly incriminating documents down on the table as he spoke (then taking them up again before I could get a look at them). My heart was drained, my throat clogged with dust. He had presented to me a version of my life so different from the one I’d experienced that I hardly knew if I had existed as a person at all in the years I’d been alive. Yet nothing he had described was incorrect: it was simply that without the context it appeared incriminating. In truth each point had a mostly innocent explanation. It was like stripping a man down to nothing but his teeth and his fingernails and saying, ‘Here is a creature who is designed to kill.’
After a prolonged pause, in which Davies refused to take his eyes off me, I could only try to explain.
‘Apart from the death of Mr Kuratowski, about which I know nothing, everything else can be explained, though without the proper context, the explanation will seem ridiculous. I have never stabbed anyone in my life, and I certainly did not run a brothel for students of the Slade. Those are both hideous distortions of the truth. As for Mr Somarco, I’m sure you have concocted some ghastly account of our friendship. I will confess that our relationship overstepped the bounds of respectability, but that is not why you have arrested me, is it? The man is a hopeless romantic, as were many who regarded Herr Schicklgruber with any sort of admiration in those days. He was trained as a botanical illustrator, and seemed to think a political solution to mankind’s troubles could be found in the lives of plants. You cannot take seriously the politics of a man like that. I can’t tell you how angry I was when I found out what was happening at Hillmead. It broke my heart, and Somarco assured me he was as deceived as I. It made me abandon my vocation as an artist. It is only the war and the work of the Camouflage Corps that has restored its meaning for me. I can assure you, sir, that Somarco is wholly on our side. He is a good man at heart – he doesn’t even really care about politics.’
‘And do you care about politics, Lieutenant Brill?’
I begged Davies for painting materials. He was reluctant at first: ‘What on earth is there to draw?’
I asked if I could have a mirror and draw myself. The answer to this was an emphatic no. Mirrors can be broken, the fragments used like daggers. Did Davies really think I might slit his throat? I tried reasoning with the man.
‘I can’t think unless I can draw. You’re asking me all these questions, asking me about my life, and all I have to think with is this empty cell. I’m losing all sense of who I am. If this carries on long enough you may as well interrogate the table. It will know as much. I don’t expect you can understand that, can you? You don’t even know what I’m talking about. What did you read at Oxford?’
‘Cambridge. I read law.’
Learmouth had read law. When I’d said I thought it was a strange transition, from lawyer to artist, he’d said that reading law was the perfect way of getting to grips with the labyrinthine channels of the human imagination. The law is nothing less than the social imagination exposed and codified. Every aspect of the human experience has, at some point, found definition and expression in the law. Though, of course, it is the most pared-down and minimal expression one can think of. I put this to Davies, who smiled in a patronizing way and said, no, law is simply the expression and definition of crime.
Oh, how he could flatten a feeling, Davies. How he could banish all love with a simple glance.
But he did bring me some painting things. A little watercolour box, well used, the colours worn down like the steps of a medieval chapter house, some dirty paintbrushes stiff with colour, an old fruit tin to wash them in and a single pencil. He refused to give me anything to sharpen the pencil. If I needed to sharpen it I was to call the guard. I laughed. The first time I tried to get my pencil sharpened, I had to wait two hours after the guard, with solemn ceremony, took away my blunt HB. When he returned it to me, I was surprised to find it had been meticulously sharpened to a very fine point.
The world came into focus as soon as I applied brush to paper, not only the world of my immediate surroundings, which I rendered in several layers of brown wash, but the world in its temporal dimensions. Long-forgotten juxtapositions reasserted themselves; the dead emerged from their gritty resting places; the trivial moments of a life lived on several translucent strata became statuesque and heroic.
The first thing I saw was my father, bow-tie at his silky throat, hair smooth as Bakelite, shouldering his way into the house after a long road trip, his hands weighed down with suitcases, merchandise stuffed under each arm, the front door swinging open to its full extent so that it nearly knocked the porcelain ballerina off the hall table. His arms, in fact, were many, for he had recently invested heavily in prosthetic limbs. The peg-leg business, he called it, a branching out from the more easily portable medical hardware he usually dealt in – stethoscopes, tongue depressors, sphygmomanometers. He saw it as a shrewd move with Europe drifting, as he saw it, towards a new war.
He was very proud of his merchandise. He would lay the ingenious little limbs – all hidden pulleys, springs and vacuum cups – carefully on the back parlour’s chairs, so that it seemed like a waiting room of the damned: tan-coloured legs lined up politely on the settee, with arms beside them.
But the war, of course, was late. My father had overstocked himself, and the house was overflowing with prosthetics. He tried to maintain an optimistic outlook, but he could see that it put him in a horrible dilemma, for he greeted every headline that talked of peace in our time with a pain in his heart. Without a good war, he was finished.
So the rituals of his return from another sales tour, heavily laden with arms and legs piled beneath his real arms and hanging by their straps round his neck so that he look like an almighty spider or some updated version of a Hindu god, were tinged with a little bitterness, and he would curse the amputees of England, for their fussiness and impatience.
On the particular evening that sticks in my mind I can see him standing in the doorway, concealing the despair on his face with his reliable and long-serving music-hall comedian’s perky and comical front. The limbs fall from under his arms and land in a shocking heap on the floor. He holds out tired arms to embrace me (real ones, I had to look twice). Unsure of his mood, I approach cautiously.
He then begins speaking in his music-hall patter, a tightened, Munchkin voice, which he produces by sinking his head as far as he can into his body.
‘Come here, son, come here, little Kenny,’ he says, ‘come and hug your old man, who’s been on the road for nearly a week in a car that has cost me more in repairs than a fleet of Hispano-Suizas, who’s flogged fewer artificial legs than Long John Silver’s brother-in-law, who’s sold fewer artificial arms than Horatio Nelson’s right-hand man. Do you know what happened to me yesterday? I was accosted by a client, the poor chap only had one leg, he said he was hopping mad, I said why, he said that artificial leg you sold me, it’s given me blisters on my knees, I said blisters on your knees, what do you want me to do about it, he said I’m going to take you to court that’s what I’m going to do, I said take me to court, you won’t have a leg to stand on. It’s cost me an arm and a leg it has, an arm and a leg I tell you…’
My mother was less able to see the comical side of my father’s predicament – but, then, she hadn’t been schooled in the music-hall tradition. How could a classical pianist ever appreciate my father’s outlook? She had become exasperated by his speculative venture.
– You care more for these artificial limbs than you do for your flesh-and-blood wife. I’d like to see one of your plastic arms do this (a slap around the face), or one of your artificial legs do this (a stamp on the toe).
– If I wasn’t a gentleman I’d let you know what it feels like to be smacked in the chops by an artificial hand. Think yourself lucky, my girl. As soon as the Germans cross the Rhine and start shelling our boys in the new trenches, the government will pay me a fortune for these beauties.
– Oh, don’t be so stupid. If there’s a war they’ll be requisitioned – you won’t get a penny. Face up to the facts. You’re stuck with this lot for the rest of your life, while we have to rot away in this hell-hole.
– My mother’s resentment overspilt into the ongoing resentment she felt at their general way of life. These arguments erupted with such frequency they passed almost unnoticed by me and my sisters.
– How can you complain when we have one of the best houses for miles around?
– When you look at the competition, that isn’t saying much.
– So you’d rather live in a bow-walled hovel with rot in the thatch, like the Morrises?
– I’d rather live anywhere so long as it’s in a proper town with proper shops, where there isn’t the stench of manure coming in through the windows every hour of the day, where people don’t give you strange looks when you try to dress decently. I’d like to live somewhere where there is a good hat shop, a nice tearoom, a proper concert hall. I haven’t been to a recital for over ten years.
– Well, London is just down the road. I’ve heard they have many concert halls there.
– And how do you propose I get there? Walk? Hitch a ride on one of Mr Morris’s vegetable carts? Perhaps you think I should ride a horse into town, like some fancy-dress John Gilpin.
I have a picture in my mind of my mother and father gesticulating wildly, the gestures multiplying, augmented as they were by the threatful waving of prosthetics, so that they looked like a painting by Boccioni.
In those days I still believed my father was a doctor, because of all the medical supplies we had at Swan’s Rest, and because he often dispensed medical advice to his family and others, if needed. Neighbours would sometimes call and offer a blotchy tongue or speckled midriff for diagnosis, and my father would use impressive medical terms instead of the traditional country names for ailments. Thus he would diagnose a case of peritonitis or influenza rather than cow colic or spinnywort ague. He could advise a neighbour on what to take for a migraine, and would even provide a few tablets or powders to cure what the yokel would have called ‘thunder fever’.
On his own children he was always keen to act the doctor. If we were sick he would take our temperatures with a real thermometer, look inside our mouths using a wooden tongue depressor, listen to our hearts with a stethoscope, test our knee reflexes with a little ebony hammer, and finally (his party piece, as it were), he would take our blood pressure using a most impressive piece of apparatus that resembled, to my young eyes, a miniature, folding grandfather clock. He would then pronounce us clinically dead. ‘Sorry, Alicia, but there’s nothing we can do with these kids but sell them to Harrison-Barbers, should get a good price…’
My sisters and I were better prepared than most children for games of doctors and nurses. The back parlour was stocked with brown cardboard boxes, each one of which presented an intoxicating mystery to us children, who never knew quite what we would find inside them. Then we would discover an inexplicable piece of instrumentation wrapped in creamy tissue paper, items that needed slotting and screwing together, gadgets of chrome metal and black, fragrant rubber, things of mirror, of Bakelite and polished teak. My father’s medical equipment had exactly the same allure as toys.
Sphygmomanometer. Stethoscope. Hypodermic. Speculum. Haemostat. As a five-year-old I had developed an unusual vocabulary. The words were bandied about in our house in much the way that ‘bread knife’ and ‘teapot’ are bandied about in others. ‘Alicia, who’s been playing with my sphygmomanometers?’; ‘Kenneth, please don’t eat your food with your father’s lancets. We have perfectly good knives…’ There was always a surplus of medical equipment at Swan’s Rest – damaged goods, out-of-date instruments that somehow found their way into other parts of the house, and I did enjoy dissecting my food with a scalpel, imagining myself a gowned and gloved surgeon at the dining table.
By the age of five I was as familiar with the sound of blood flowing through an artery as I was with the chanting of nursery rhymes or the chiming of musical boxes (which my mother collected). Countless times I had put a stethoscope to my sister Pru’s pale chest and listened to the slamming doors of her heart, or the sudden blasts of turbulence, the vortices and hurricanoes of her breath, or the belfry and breaking-glass clatter of her laughter.
But it was the sphygmomanometer that took up most of our time, since it seemed to combine many different ‘toys’ in one – thermometer, stethoscope, pump. It was our mother who showed us how to work it. I think she might have harboured hopes that such educative playing might inspire us to become real doctors. So it was that we strapped the cuff to each other’s arms and inflated it with the rubber bulb, and watched the mercury rising and falling in the U-shaped tube. Then, through the stethoscope, listening to the pulse becoming fainter and fainter until – what a shock it was at first – it stopped. The blood in little Pru’s body fell silent. I looked at my mother in alarm, and repeated my father’s oft-repeated joke, but this time as a serious statement – ‘Pru’s clinically dead!’
But my mother laughed. ‘No, not dead, Kenny, you’ve just blocked her veins with the tightened cuff. Read the level in the mercury. What is it? Now release a little bit of air at a time and listen carefully for the pulse to start again.’ I listened. I looked at Pru. She seemed a little bit worried. But then I heard it. The return of her heartbeat, like a butterfly walking downstairs on the other side of the world. I was told to take the new reading from the mercury.
‘She’s come back to life,’ I said, and Pru looked as relieved as any Lazarus or Lazarene.
‘And what became of your father’s peg-leg business – has the war made him a rich man?’
I looked at Davies, wondering if he was joking. ‘I imagine you, or one of your minions, have been to Swan’s Rest. You’ll have seen the shambles my father’s life has become. Does he look like a rich man? In 1936 his business went up in flames. He took all his arms and legs out into the orchard, arranged them in a heap and set fire to them. Odd, when war seemed more likely than ever. His business had been limping along for years – my father’s joke – and he must have just grown sick of the sight of them. One of our neighbours glimpsed the fire through a hedge, saw feet and hands reaching out of the flames and raised the alarm, thinking that my father was purging the products of some hellish human abattoir.’
Davies was silent, though he had a thoughtful smile on his face. I was waiting for him to say something about my father.
When I saw that he wasn’t going to, I continued: ‘He never wanted to stay in the medical-supplies business. His very purpose in coming back to the Heath was to get away from that game. He wanted to get back to the land. The land was important to him. More important than anything.’
Back in my cell I was shocked, after a long day of gentle interrogation, to experience a sense of homecoming. I was glad to be back in the brown, four-walled space. And then I was ashamed of the feeling, as though I’d betrayed Swan’s Rest. It was true that the land around the house was important to my father, and yet it was a disastrous inability to understand the nature of that land that had nearly done for him, in the early days.
He had grown up on the Heath – its hedges and drains were the lines that enclosed his nature – yet he cared nothing for it until it was a distant memory. Then, living a life of walled-in drudgery in the shabby terraces of north London, he had leapt at the chance to return to the rural life when his father died and left him the house, along with a small parcel of land.
Yet something in that scuffed, unschooled upbringing had sharpened his mind, given him a silver tongue and a quick wit. As a child he had always shied away from doing the manual work in the fields and eventually his father relented and confined him to administrative chores. He was given the paperwork to do. At the age of seven he was responsible for keeping the accounts, making deposits in the local bank, dealing with seed merchants and market officials, and of course he excelled on the market stalls, where he had worked for almost as long as he could talk.
When he was eight years old his mother died, a tragedy that must have affected him profoundly. I know nothing about her. She died long before anyone with a camera visited the Heath, and I never met anyone, apart from my father, who had known her. And he never spoke about her. Though he did speak, often and with great vitriol, about her successor. My grandfather remarried with unseemly haste, a widow who already had a son, a little older than my father. A contemptible clog-wearing muck-dweller, my father called him, though he went by the name of Tiberius Joy, and retained that name, even after his mother’s marriage to my grandfather.
Even as a boy Tiberius was an excellent spademan, a valued skill on the Heath where the earth was mostly turned over by hand. Some of the bigger farms used horse and plough, but most of the gardeners were bent-backed shovellers, hoers and rakers. In any family the boy who could cut the most soil would rise to the top of the pecking order, and Tiberius, in competition with my pencil-wielding father, had an easy journey into his stepfather’s affections.
My father became so unhappy in the new set-up that, at thirteen years old, he ran away from home. His experience with handling money and dealing with businessmen, and his skills of salesmanship on the market stalls of Covent Garden and elsewhere, had equipped him with the basic tools for survival in the adult world, but he had a strongly romantic and adventurous streak and somehow managed to spirit himself out of England altogether. He spent a while as a wandering minstrel, troubadour or scholar gypsy (depending on his mood when recounting his exploits), playing a penny whistle in the dusty village squares of southern Europe. His wanderings took him from the fishing villages of the Algarve as far as the olive groves of Thrace. This was the beginning of his career as an itinerant performer.
At some point around the turn of the century he found himself in Marseille, and expanded his romantic ambitions by going to sea, apprenticing himself as an assistant to a ship’s surgeon on an American vessel, whose normal run was the transportation of sugar and beans from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to New Orleans, and various manufactured goods in the opposite direction. After less than a year he jumped ship and tried to make his own way in the United States.
I don’t know much about my father’s time in America, or what curious career he followed that caused him eventually to be arrested for impersonating a doctor in Newark, New Jersey, though not before he had successfully delivered a baby, and performed an appendectomy. After a short spell in a penitentiary, he was deported.
He landed in Liverpool and settled in that city for a while, fascinated by the culture of the variety theatres and music halls. It seemed that in a sudden revelation he believed his life thus far had been nothing more than intensive training for a career on the stage. He was by now a pushy, self-confident, ambitious young man who thought nothing of blustering his way into the offices of theatre managers and theatrical agents and pestering them for a turn on the stage. Proudly he showed me one of the letters of recommendation he was given by an agent he’d hounded for weeks. He was to hand the letter, sealed, to the manager of the Liverpool Empire, a portly but stonily solid man called Joe Graves, who read it while my father stood expectantly before him. Mr Graves exploded with laughter (not a good thing, my father said, for a man of those proportions) and handed him the letter. It read:
Pay no attention to the bearer – he is troublesome. I am only writing this to get rid of him.
Graves was so amused by the letter that he gave my father a five-minute slot on a Saturday night, without even so much as an
audition. My father said, once he was on the stage and in the spotlight, all he could think to do was to tell the story of his life. Somehow, by compressing his already considerable achievements into five minutes, he delivered a narrative that had the unexpected effect of producing uncontrollable laughter in the audience.
It had not occurred to my father that his talents lay in comedy, but he embarked on a career in that direction with some moderate success. Then he teamed up with the person my mother called ‘the Little Fellow’ and formed the double-act Brill and Miller. Miller was a dwarf, and was only known by that single name. Like Harpo Marx, he performed mute. He vocalized only once on stage, and that was during his death throes. Miller died when their comedy knife-throwing act went wrong.
My mother told me the story when I was older.
‘They’d never quite found their niche, you know, Kenneth. That was the problem. They tried things before they’d properly acquired the skills. It takes a great deal of skill to be a knifethrower. And, of course, they always tried to make something of the Little Fellow’s tiny frame, so instead of knives they used darts, and Miller was tied to a dartboard, slowly revolving. And he didn’t realize that a dart, if it hits a particular spot, can do a lot of damage. And Miller, the poor little chap – he was such a small fellow – it didn’t take much to kill him. The coroner said that Miller’s skull was hardly thicker than an eggshell at the point where the dart entered, like a baby’s soft spot.’
My father suffered from the clown’s affliction, the terrible consequence of dedicating oneself to making others laugh – he could not be taken seriously. I could only laugh at the picture my mother had painted.
‘Kenneth, what do you find so funny about poor Miller? He was only a little thing.’
Every decision my father made in his life after that point was shaped by the death of Miller. It was the reason that he abandoned his stage career, it was the reason he was a conscientious objector during the Great War. It was why he became a travelling salesman in medical supplies (which he believed was as close to being a doctor as he would ever get), and the reason why, when the business began failing, he took the chance of returning to the Heath and working on the land.
Swan’s Rest was an important house on the Heath, standing at the end of a curving gravel drive that cut the lawn in half. Its front porch rested on two tusk-like Doric columns that gave the Georgian frontage the appearance of a sad walrus. Bay windows on either side of the porch gave light to the front parlour and the morning room, and above, three windows belonged to the bedrooms of myself and my two sisters, mine being on the right as you approached the house. Downstairs there were three more rooms – the back parlour (at various times used by my father as an office and warehouse), and an L-shaped dining room with flock wallpaper and grand-looking oil paintings of local views by artists whose signatures (W. H. Riley, Stanton Hope) always struck me as too legible. Finally there was an enormous kitchen, the domain of our housekeeper, Mrs Rossiter.
After their two-up-two-down Holloway terrace it must have seemed like a mansion to my parents. I was six years old, and can still remember the shock of so much space, both inside and out. The long lawn at the front with its curving drive, the walnut tree (the reason for the curve) and the shrubberies that bordered it either side. Then at the back, an orchard of twenty-six ancient apple trees, most of which were beyond their fruiting days.
There were other houses like ours scattered about the district, some bigger and grander – stately farmhouses and old halls, some newly built suburban villas grotesquely out of place – but Swan’s Rest was reputed to be the oldest, and was certainly the most beautiful.
Excerpted from Vanishing by Gerard Woodward. Copyright © 2014 by Gerard Woodward.
First published 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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