Category Archives: April 2014

Things A Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone – Extract

Things A Little Bird Told Me

Introduction

A GENIUS ENTITY

On October 7, 2003, a “Boston-based blogging entity” called Genius Labs announced it had been acquired by Google. The press release was picked up by various news outlets, and soon Genius Labs was added to Wikipedia’s “List of Mergers and Acquisitions by Google.” Once something makes it into Wikipedia, it is often repeated as fact. And in a way, it was fact. Genius Labs was an entity. It was me. The tale of how I got acquired—that is, hired—by Google says a lot about how I’ve made my way in the world.

A year earlier, the future wasn’t looking bright for the entity of me. My first startup, a site called Xanga that began with me and a group of my friends having the not-quite-refined idea that we wanted to “make a web company,” wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be. Tired of being broke in New York City— of all the cities to be broke in, it’s really one of the worst—I quit. My girlfriend, Livia, and I retreated to my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts, with tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt in tow. We moved into the basement of my mom’s house. I had no job. I tried to sell an old copy of Photoshop on eBay (which is probably illegal), but no one bought it. At one point, I even asked for my job back at the startup—and my former colleagues said no.

The only bright spot in my so-called professional life was blogging. At the startup, we had used a piece of software from a company called Pyra, and I took an interest in the work of Pyra’s co-founder, a guy named Evan Williams. I started writing my own blog and following Evan’s, and in 1999, I was among the first to test-drive a new product Pyra had released: a web-logging tool called Blogger. To me, like lots of people, blogging was a revelation, even a revolution—a democratization of information on a whole new scale.

Xanga was a blogging community, but having left it, I was peripheral to that revolution, broke and directionless in my mom’s basement. But my blog was another story. My blog was my alter ego. Full of total, almost hallucinogenic confidence, my blog was a fictional creation. It all began with the title, inspired by an old Bugs Bunny cartoon guest-starring Wile E. Coyote. In one scene, the ultrarefined coyote says, “Permit me to introduce myself,” then presents a business card to Bugs with a flourish. It reads WILE E. COYOTE, GENIUS. By announcing himself as a genius on his business card, Wile E. Coyote epitomizes the spirit of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. When you’re starting a company, you sometimes have nothing more than an idea. And sometimes you don’t even have the idea— just the supreme confidence that one day you will have an idea. You have to begin somewhere, so you declare yourself an entrepreneur just like Wile E. declares himself a genius. Then you make a business card and give yourself the title FOUNDER AND CEO.

I didn’t have a company… yet. But in the spirit of Wile E., I christened my blog Biz Stone, Genius. I made up business cards that said the same. And in my posts, I made sure to play the part. Genius Biz claimed to be building inventions with infinite resources and a world-class team of scientists at his headquarters—naturally titled Genius Labs.

One of my posts in July 2002 read, “The scale-model of a Japanese superjet that is supposed to be able to fly twice as fast as the Concorde crashed during the test flight… I may have to sign various paperworks that will flow millions into further development of hybrid air transit.”

Real-Life Biz was not investing in hybrid air transit. I did, however, manage to land a job as a “web specialist” at Wellesley College; Livia found a job, too. We rented a place near campus so I could walk to work. It wasn’t so much an apartment as the attic of a house, but at least it wasn’t my mother’s basement.

My alter ego, Genius Biz, meanwhile, continued to exude confidence, gaining more and more of a following. He was Buddy Love to my Professor Kelp. But as I sustained this charade, something started to happen. My posts weren’t just wacky anymore. Some of the thoughts weren’t in the character of a mad scientist; they were my own. As I continued to write about the web and think about how it might evolve, I started hitting on ideas that I would one day incorporate into my work. In September of 2003 I posted:

My RSS reader [a syndicated news feed] is set to 255 characters. Maybe 255 is a new blog standard?… Seems limiting but if people are going to read many blogs a day on iPods and cell phones, maybe it’s a good standard.

Little did I know how ideas like this, which seemed incidental at the time, would one day change the world. And I say this with all the humble understatement of a self-described genius.

*****

Google acquired Evan Williams’s company, Blogger, in early 2003. In the four years it had taken for blogging to evolve from a pastime of a few geeks into a household word, Ev and I had never met or even talked on the phone. But in the interim, I had interviewed him for an online magazine called Web Review, and I still had his email address. Now I worked up the confidence to contact him. I sent him an email congratulating him on the acquisition and saying, “I’ve always thought of myself as the missing seventh member of your team. If you ever think of hiring more people, let me know.”

It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, Ev had been following my blog, too. In the tech world, that made us practically blood brothers. Though he was surrounded by some of the best engineers in the world, he needed someone who really understood social media—someone who saw that it was about people, not just technology—and he thought I was the guy.

He wrote back right away, saying, “Do you want to work here?”

I said, “Sure,” and I thought it was a done deal. I had a new job on the West Coast. Easy peasy.

I didn’t know it at the time, but behind the scenes Evan had to pull strings in order to hire me. Actually, they were more like ropes. Or cables—the kind that hold up suspension bridges. Google had a reputation for hiring only people with computer science degrees, preferably PhDs; they certainly didn’t court college dropouts like me. Finally, the powers that be at Google begrudgingly agreed that Wayne Rosing, then Google’s senior VP of engineering, would talk to me on the phone.

The day of the call, I sat in my attic apartment staring at the angular white Radio Shack phone I’d had since I was a kid. It had a cord. It was practically a collector’s item. I’d never interviewed for a job before, and nobody had prepped me for this. Although I naively assumed that I already had the job, I at least understood that talking to Wayne Rosing was a big deal for someone in my position. I was nervous that I’d mess it up, and with good cause. A few days earlier, a woman from the human resources department had called me, and I’d joked around with her. When she asked me if I had a college degree, I told her I didn’t but that I’d seen an ad on TV for where to get one. She didn’t laugh. Clearly my instincts in this department weren’t reliable. Real-Life Biz was consumed by self-doubt.

The phone rang, and as I reached for it, something came over me. In that instant I decided to abandon all the failure and hopelessness I’d been carrying around. Instead, I would fully embody my alter ego: the guy who ran Genius Labs. Genius Biz was on the job.

Wayne began by asking me about my experience. I guess he’d talked to the HR woman, because his first question was why I hadn’t finished college. With utter confidence, I explained that I’d been offered a job as a book jacket designer, with the opportunity to work directly with an art director. I considered it an apprenticeship. As the interview went on, I acknowledged that my startup had been a failure—for me, at least—but explained that I’d left because the culture didn’t fit my personality. In Silicon Valley, the experience of having crashed and burned at a startup had value. I told him about a book I’d written on blogging.

Then, in the middle of his questions, I said, “Hey, Wayne, where do you live?” That took him aback. I guess it sounded a little creepy.

“Why do you want to know where I live?” he asked.

“If I decide to take this job, I’ll need to pick a good location,” I said.

Decide to take this job. I didn’t even know I was being audacious. But somehow it worked. I had the job. I was going to join Google. Evan invited me out to California to meet the team. With its seemingly limitless resources, scientists, and secret projects, Google was the place on earth most resembling my imagined Genius Labs.

*****

A couple of years later, Ev and I would quit Google to start a company together. I had joined Google before the IPO, so I would be leaving lots of valuable shares behind. But my move to Silicon Valley wasn’t about a cozy job—it was about taking a risk, imagining a future, and reinventing myself. My first startup had failed. But my next startup was Twitter.

*****

This book is more than a rags-to-riches tale. It’s a story about making something out of nothing, about merging your abilities with your ambitions, and about what you learn when you look at the world through a lens of infinite possibility. Plain hard work is good and important, but it is ideas that drive us, as individuals, companies, nations, and a global community. Creativity is what makes us unique, inspired, and fulfilled. This book is about how to tap into and harness the creativity in and around us all.

I’m not a genius, but I’ve always had faith in myself and, more important, in humanity. The greatest skill I possessed and developed over the years was the ability to listen to people: the nerds of Google, the disgruntled users of Twitter, my respected colleagues, and, always, my lovely wife. What that taught me, in the course of helping to found and lead Twitter for over five years, and during my time at startups before then, was that the technology that appears to change our lives is, at its core, not a miracle of invention or engineering. No matter how many machines we added to the network or how sophisticated the algorithms got, what I worked on and witnessed at Twitter was and continues to be a triumph not of technology but of humanity. I saw that there are good people everywhere. I realized that a company can build a business, do good in society, and have fun. These three goals can run alongside one another, without being dominated by the bottom line. People, given the right tools, can accomplish amazing things. We can change our lives. We can change the world.

The personal stories in this book—which come from my childhood, my career, and my life—are about opportunity, creativity, failure, empathy, altruism, vulnerability, ambition, ignorance, knowledge, relationships, respect, what I’ve learned along the way, and how I’ve come to see humanity. The insights gained from these experiences have given me a unique perspective on business and how to define success in the twenty-first century, on happiness and the human condition. That may sound pretty ambitious, but when we’re taking a break from developing hybrid air transit, we aim high here at Genius Labs. I don’t pretend to know all the answers. Actually, strike that: I just might pretend to know all the answers. What better way to get a closer look at the questions?

1

HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

So, in a single phone call, Genius Biz had landed a job at Google pre-IPO. Or so he thought.

After my conversation with Wayne Rosing, I thought I would just drive to California and start my new life. In anticipation of that, my would-be employers had asked me to fly out to the Google offices in Mountain View to meet them in person and finalize the details.

At this point Evan Williams was my champion. Having never laid eyes on me, he had pushed Google to hire me, and now he was meeting me at the airport to take me to my new workplace. I had no idea what a big part of my life Evan would become, and that one day he and I would start Twitter together. At that point I was just grateful for the ride.

I arrived at the San Francisco airport on an early flight, and when Evan picked me up in his yellow Subaru, Jason Goldman, his right-hand man at Blogger, was in the passenger seat. I jumped in the backseat, and as we drove to Google, I was immediately jokey about my plane ride. As is my wont, I probably made some inappropriate remarks, because I remember Evan and Jason laughing and saying, “We just met this guy five seconds ago and this is where he’s going with his banter?” I tend to come on a little strong, but I could see that they were pleasant and casual and had a nice rapport. I wasn’t surprised. I’d been reading Evan’s blog for so many years that I knew there was a thoughtful person in there. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and sunglasses. He had a slight build, a big smile, and he drove like a maniac. Goldman has a memorable laugh. He usually hits a high note at the end.

Because Google hadn’t gone public yet, it was still a startup, but it was already several years in and considered very successful. There was no Googleplex yet, just a bunch of people working in leased stucco buildings.

Evan showed me the place and introduced me to the Blogger team. After making the rounds at the office, he and I went to a party in Mountain View for a bit; then we drove up to San Francisco to have dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Marina District with his mother, who was in town, and his girlfriend.

After dinner and plenty of wine, I was ready to go to my hotel—I had more meetings at Google the next day and I was still on East Coast time—but Evan had other plans for us.

“Let’s go to the Mission! I’ll show you some of my favorite bars.”

Evan, his girlfriend, and I kept the party going at a bar called Doc’s Clock. I ordered a whiskey neat, and the bartender poured me a full juice glass.

“Wow,” I said, marveling at the quantity.

“They have a good pour here,” Ev said.

By last call, at 1:40, we’d all had plenty to drink. Ev, who was blitzed, leaned back in his chair, opened his arms wide, and said, “Biz, all this could be yours.” We had a table in the rear, and I was sitting with my back to the wall. From my vantage point, I could see the whole bar, a dimly lit, hipster-friendly dive bar, not much more.

“Really?” I said sarcastically. “This?”

Evan put his head down on the table. We were done.

*****

The next day, I had twelve meetings with various Google executives. It became immediately clear to me that these “meetings” were in fact interviews. Turned out this job I thought I already had wasn’t yet mine. I was smack in the middle of Google’s famously rigorous application process.

But I swear what got me through was the certainty that the job was mine. Channeling my Genius Labs persona wasn’t the only strategy I had up my sleeve.

Before I got on the phone with Wayne Rosing, I’d never applied for a real job before. I had no idea how an interview, phone or live, was supposed to go. But as I’ve said, I did have one thing going for me: the well-established confidence and chutzpah of Biz Stone, Genius.

Still, you can print that on a business card or type it on a website, but you can’t just summon that attitude out of thin air. So there was something I did before the phone interview that helped me summon Genius Biz. Here’s how it worked: In the days leading up to that phone call, I took the idea of working on the Blogger team at Google and let it bounce around in my head. Back then I liked to take a slow jog from my apartment, which was practically on the Wellesley campus, down to Lake Waban and around the two-plus-mile dirt path. As I ran, I pictured myself in a strange office somewhere near San Francisco, with a bunch of guys I’d never met, doing the work I wanted to do.

Most of Google was entirely made up of computer science PhDs. They were very talented at building software. The role I envisioned for myself was to humanize Blogger. I would take over its home page—the company’s official blog—and make the Help area into a product called “Blogger Knowledge,” where I would highlight features of the service. I would give a voice and brand to Blogger. (Though I didn’t know it at the time, this is what I would find myself doing at every company I joined: embodying and communicating the spirit of the thing we were creating.)

This is a useful exercise with any problem or idea. Visualize what you want to see happen for yourself in the next two years. What is it? I want to have my own design studio. I want to join a startup. I want to make a cat video that goes viral on YouTube. (Can’t hurt to aim high.) As you’re working out or going for a walk, let that concept bump around in there. Don’t come up with anything specific. The goal isn’t to solve anything. If you take an idea and just hold it in your head, you unconsciously start to do things that advance you toward that goal. It kinda works. It did for me.

*****

Now I was at those offices I had imagined. They were a little different from my fantasy; I’d expected… I don’t know, a Googleplex maybe, and instead there was a bunch of nondescript buildings; Blogger was in building number π—but I’d already been working for Blogger in my head for at least a week. Besides, it was hard to be intimidated when nobody seemed to understand what job they were interviewing me for. It all made sense to me and Evan, but the human resources department at Google was a little baffled by my job description. My explanation that I was going to add humanity to the product only seemed to confuse them further. In interviews, the Google staff was known to make engineers solve difficult coding problems on a whiteboard. They had no idea what to ask me. My hobbies? Adding to the general fuzziness of the interviews, Evan and I had been out ’til 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.

In the first meeting, when a woman said, “Thanks for coming in. Can I get you anything?” I said, “Yes. Do you have an aspirin?” I’m pretty sure on the list of job interviewee “don’ts,” immediately exposing your hangover ranks high.

One of the guys who interviewed me asked, “Do you know why Google acquired Blogger?” He was genuinely curious. At that point Google had acquired Deja.com’s Usenet discussions, but this was its first real acquisition of a company with employees. My answer was simple, if not necessarily correct. I said, “Well, it’s the other half of Search. Google searches web pages. Blogger makes web pages. It gives you more to search.”

By the fifth interview, I asked a guy, “Do you know why you’re interviewing me?” He said, “No. I only started here two days ago.” I’m pretty sure on the list of job interviewer “don’ts,” that’s also pretty high up there. Maybe that meant we were well matched.

Regardless, when all was said and done, the job that had never been mine finally was.

With no small help from Evan, I’d manufactured this opportunity without a college education, much less a higher degree; without working my way up a ladder; and with a failure or two under my belt for good measure. I wasn’t a shoo-in; I wasn’t anything. But I did have experience in one particular area: creating my own opportunities.

*****

I discovered early on that it was better to make my own destiny. As a kid, I spent a bunch of time playing in the yard alone, but one of my favorite things was to go down into our basement and “invent things.” My grandfather built telephones for American Telephone and Telegraph in Boston from 1925 to 1965. He passed before I was born, but my mother never cleared out her father’s work stuff. In our basement were his workbench, all his tools, and a giant apothecary-type arrangement of various springs, sprockets, wires, and the like—everything my grandfather had used to build and repair rotary telephones. I’d go down there and pretend to be inventing wondrous contraptions in my secret, underground laboratory.

My mom’s best friend, Kathy, had a husband, Bob, who was an electrician. His basement, as far as I was concerned, was another laboratory. The real deal. Whenever we visited their home, I would walk straight in and say, “Bob, let’s go invent some stuff in the lab. I have a few ideas.” I distinctly remember having a revelatory thought that with two empty soda bottles and some hoses, I could rig a contraption that would allow me to breathe underwater.

When I told Bob the idea, he said, “You mean SCUBA?”

I told him the name needed more thought and insisted we get to work. He diplomatically said we’d need an air compressor and some other things he didn’t have and suggested we build a battery-powered light mounted on an upside-down coffee can instead. It wouldn’t allow me to breathe underwater, but if it had batteries and wires, I was all for it. Another time, I wanted to invent a flying contraption. Instead, we hooked a speaker up to a battery. We slipped flat copper strips into a plastic mat and connected them to the speaker so that when you stepped on the mat, it activated the speaker and made a horrible buzzing noise. I brought it home and slipped it under the area rug next to my bed. That night I crawled into bed and yelled, “Mom, you forgot to kiss me good night!”

“Aw, so sweet!” she said. She came into the room, stepped on the rug, activated the alarm, and nearly had a heart attack.

“My invention worked!” I crowed.

Perhaps to channel this energy, my mom enrolled me in a program called Boy Rangers. Not the Boy Scouts. Not the Cub Scouts. Some obscure other program called Boy Rangers. It was like the Betamax of scouting programs. Not only did I not want to be in the Boy Rangers, but every week I had to bring “wampum” to the program—I had to pay. Also, my parents had divorced when I was a toddler, and my dad lived a few towns over, but he might as well have lived in Istanbul. My parents were oil and water, so we barely ever saw my father. As it happened, the Boy Rangers was a father-son thing. Every week, all the other boys had their dads with them, and I attended solo. If there was a merit badge for “rubbing it in,” they all would have earned it without trying.

Anyway, the Boy Rangers was modeled after Native American tribes. In order to advance from Paleface through Papoose, Brave, Warrior, and eventually to Hi-Pa-Nac (which sounds like an anti-cholesterol drug but is actually some sort of chieftain) we had to create our own feathered headdresses, learn how to tie knots, and memorize various tribal slogans. You know, cool-kid stuff. I was stuck in Boy Rangers from age six to ten, all those critical years when most boys were playing Little League baseball, Pee Wee football, and all the other sports. I wasn’t very driven to master the Boy Rangers skills, but the leaders always gave everyone the patches anyway. The other kids had their patches sewn onto their khaki shirts, but my mom attached mine with safety pins.

As a struggling single mom, the most important thing my mom did for me, my sister Mandy, and my two half-sisters, Sofia and Samantha, was to keep us in Wellesley, where she’d grown up. The town had become very affluent, and the public school system was one of the best in the country. My mom had gone through the Wellesley school system and loved it. She was determined that we have similarly good experiences.

To me, all my friends were rich. It seemed that they assumed I came from a wealthy family, too, but at various times, we were on welfare. I remember the gigantic slabs of government-issued cheese. I was on a school lunch program for low-income families, which was good because it meant I didn’t need lunch money, but it was bad because of the way it worked. To buy lunch, most students bought lunch tickets. Those tickets were green. To get my lunch tickets, I had to go to a special office once a week to be issued five gray lunch tickets. When other kids asked why my lunch tickets were gray, I made jokes about their green tickets. I suppose I started developing a sense of humor and a certain attitude to deal with the obvious differences in our lifestyles. I would even raid the Lost and Found box so I could find a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt—something other than the same jeans and T-shirt that I pretty much exclusively wore otherwise. Most of my socks and underwear were marked “Irregular.” My mom did her best, and she managed to keep us in Wellesley, in a school system that happened to be receptive to my particular brand of creativity.

When I got to high school, all my friends were nerds. But I knew from TV and the movies that a good way to expand my social crowd would be to play on a sports team. I was naturally athletic, and from all my years in the Boy Rangers, I was really good at tying half-hitches and sheepshanks, but I’d never tried a team sport. The basketball court had all these crazy lines on the ground. All the other kids seemed to know where you were allowed to stand and for how long. I just stood there. Then, in the football tryouts, there were all these rules. How did it work? How many chances did we get? And how was I supposed to know when I was on the wrong side of the field? I was confused and nervous, which made me even more confused. Before I went to the baseball tryouts, I wised up and did a little research. But there was no way to make up for all the lost time. In this situation, the visualization technique I used to land the job at Blogger wouldn’t have worked. Even if I’d been aware of the strategy at the time, I would have visualized myself making a thousand home runs and then stood by and watched while all the other kids scored them. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make any of the sports teams. That’s when I decided to take matters into my own hands.

A little investigating told me that there was one sport my high school did not offer at the time: lacrosse. If none of the other kids had any experience playing lacrosse, then everyone would feel as confused as I did. It would be a level playing field. So I asked the school administration whether, if I found a coach and enough boys, we could start a lacrosse team. The answer was yes. So that’s what I did. After all that apparent ineptitude, I emerged as a decent lacrosse player, I was elected captain, and we were a pretty good team (though I still preferred the company of the nerds to the athletes).

The determination that led me to create a new sports team taught me an important lesson: opportunity is manufactured.

My dictionary defines opportunity as a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something. The world has conditioned us to wait for opportunity, have the good sense to spot it, and hope to strike at the appropriate time. But if opportunity is just a set of circumstances, why are we waiting around for the stars to align? Rather than waiting and pouncing with a high degree of failure, you might as well go ahead and create the set of circumstances on your own. If you make the opportunity, you’ll be first in position to take advantage of it.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that this is the core of entrepreneurship—being the person who makes something happen for yourself. But it’s also true for all forms of success, in all parts of life. People say success is a combination of work and luck, and in that equation, luck is the piece that is out of your hands. But as you create opportunities for yourself, your odds at the lottery go way up.

*****

In high school I’d learned how fulfilling it was to make my own opportunities, and I assumed I’d be able to do the same in college. I graduated high school in 1992 and cobbled together a bunch of local scholarships to cover my first year of college at Northeastern University. Knowing the funding would run out, I landed a scholarship for excellence in the arts, which gave me a free ride at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

But college didn’t turn out to be all I’d envisioned. Every day, I commuted an hour from my mother’s house to the UMass campus, a maze of concrete that was rumored to have been designed by builders who specialized in prisons. One of the first things I wanted to do there was produce The White Rose, a play based on an early anti-Nazi movement in Germany. But the woman who ran the theater department told me my only option was to attend her class and be a part of whatever play she had picked. Hmm. That wasn’t what I had in mind.

On the side, I got a job moving heavy boxes in an old mansion on Beacon Hill for the publisher Little, Brown and Company. I carried boxes of books from the attic of the mansion down to the lobby. It was the mid-nineties, and the publisher’s art department was transitioning from spray glue to Photoshop. They even had an old Photostat machine in its own little darkroom—a huge and expensive machine that did the same job as a ninety-nine-dollar scanner. I knew my way around a Mac, and designing book jackets looked like fun. So one day, when the entire art department went out to lunch, I snooped around until I found a transmittal sheet for a book that listed the title, subtitle, author, and a brief summary of what the editorial department wanted for the jacket. The book was Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band, by Scott Freeman. I sat down at one of the workstations and created a book cover for it. On a dark background, I put “Midnight Riders” in tall, green type. Then I found a picture of the band, also very dark, that looked good below the title. When I was done, I printed it out, matted it, and slipped it in with the other cover designs headed to the sales and editorial departments in the New York office for approval. Then I went back to moving boxes.

Two days later, when the art director came back from presenting designs in New York, he asked, “Who designed this cover?” I told him I had. He said, “You? The box kid?” I explained that I knew computers, and that I was attending college on a scholarship for the arts. He offered me a full-time job as a designer on the spot. The New York office had picked my jacket to use on the book. Looking back, it wasn’t very good, but they chose it.

I was being offered an honest-to-goodness full-time job. Should I take it? College so far had been a disappointment. (My experience there reminds me of a Dutch phrase that an entrepreneur I visited in Amsterdam once told me: “He who stands up gets his head chopped off.”) And here I was being handed an opportunity to work directly with the art director, who would turn out to be a master. The way I saw it, people went to college in order to be qualified to get a job like the one I was being offered. Basically, I was skipping three grades. Besides, I’d learn more here, doing what I wanted to do, than drifting anonymously through college. So I dropped out of college to work at Little, Brown, one of the best decisions of my life.

I’m not advocating dropping out. I could have entered college with more focus in the first place, or I could have tried to change my experience when I got there. But taking a job that I’d won through my initiative was another way of controlling my destiny. This, as I see it, was an example of manufacturing my own opportunities.

This is why starting a lacrosse team, producing a play, launching your own company, or actively building the company you work for is all more creatively fulfilling and potentially lucrative than simply doing what is expected of you. Believing in yourself, the genius you, means you have confidence in your ideas before they even exist. In order to have a vision for a business, or for your own potential, you must allocate space for that vision. I want to play on a sports team. I didn’t make it on a team. How can I reconcile these truths? I don’t like my job, but I love this one tiny piece of it, so how can I do that instead? Real opportunities in the world aren’t listed on job boards, and they don’t pop up in your in-box with the subject line: Great Opportunity Could Be Yours. Inventing your dream is the first and biggest step toward making it come true. Once you realize this simple truth, a whole new world of possibilities opens up in front of you.

That modus operandi is what brought me to Google in 2003.

*****

I’d landed at Google, but Real-Life Biz was still working out the kinks. Genius Labs was a nonentity, Livia and I still had tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, my car wasn’t up for the cross-country drive, and I was on my way to an opportunity I’d manufactured out of nothing but a unique blend of confidence and desperation.

I wanted a bigger car, a Toyota Matrix, for the move across the country, so I went to a dealership to trade in our old Corolla. I said to the dealer, “I have this Corolla, but I don’t have any money. Can I give you the car and get a payment plan for the rest?”

He said, “For five thousand dollars down—”

I interrupted him. “I really don’t have any money. I have no money. Nothing. Zippo.”

He said, “For two thousand dollars down—”

I politely interrupted again, “If I had some money, I’d give it to you, but I don’t. I’ve no money, no access to money, and my credit cards are completely maxed out.”

So he took my Corolla and gave me a financing deal that even he admitted was terrible. Time for another visualization.

I thought, Here’s to my future self, who will pay for all of this.

2

EVERY DAY’S A NEW DAY

Renewables are just what they sound like: naturally replenished resources. They’re inexhaustible. In spite of the earth’s

depleting reserves, don’t you feel better already, thinking about renewables? The idea of replenishment is such a relief. There’s more where that came from. We won’t run out. This life that we’re trying to live is sustainable. This is an important concept when we think about the world’s resources, but it’s also applicable to our work and lives, and it came into play in my eventual decision to leave Google.

*****

I worked on Blogger at Google for two years, and up until the initial public offering, Livia and I were still deeply in debt. Our living situation was less than ideal. In fact, it was less than mediocre. Before we moved to San Francisco we had asked Evan and Jason where we should live. The most obvious choice was downtown Mountain View, near where the Google offices were located. But Jason and Evan were self-proclaimed San Francisco snobs, so they told us, “You gotta live in the Mission, man. That’s where it’s at.”

We could tell that the Mission was too gritty for us. It was in that phase between down-and-out and up-and-coming, where the hipsters had moved in but there were still gunshots at night—possibly directed toward the hipsters. For people like Ev, who grew up in Nebraska fantasizing about the big city, it was cool being the city mouse. But Livy had grown up in New York City in the seventies. She’d had enough of living in the city; she wanted to be the country mouse. To move to yet another city and pick a transitional district with lingering gang territories would have rubbed salt in the wound. Then we read about a really nice neighborhood that was Mission adjacent: Potrero Hill. From the pictures we found online, it seemed to have a cute street with an old-school deli, a family-owned grocery store, a corner bookstore, and probably a savings-and-loan run by George Bailey, from the looks of it.

Still searching online, I found a fifteen-hundred-square foot loft in Potrero Hill for thirteen hundred dollars a month. Holy crap! I’d always wanted to live in a loft. And the apartment was number 1A. We’d be on the ground floor—no more walking up to the attic. We’d walk out our front door and be right in charming Potrero Hill.

Fingers crossed, I called the landlord. It was still available! I agreed to rent it on the spot. We felt so pleased with ourselves to be driving west with our affordable, cool loft waiting for us.

What we failed to take into account was the “hill” part of Potrero Hill. Downtown Potrero Hill is at the base of the north slope. Our new apartment, we discovered on arrival, was on the south slope. The only way to get from one side to the other was to walk up and over a hill steeper than a ski slope. I’m all for cardio, but I wasn’t about to climb that hill every time I wanted an overpriced scone, which I couldn’t afford anyway.

As for the cool loft building we’d anticipated, it was squeezed between two housing projects, overlooking the highway and a rendering plant, where I’m pretty sure they were making glue out of seagulls, or something along those lines. Our picture windows looked out onto an industrial wasteland.

Also, it was a live/work loft, and the guy next door was in a band. Guess what instrument he played? Did you guess drums? Good for you! He played loud, crazy music all night, and kept a barking pitbull as his companion.

But the real kicker was the mistake we’d made in assuming our apartment, 1A, would be on the ground floor. The building was built into the side of a cliff, so the numbers were basically reversed—you entered on the ninth floor and the floors went down from there. We had rented a ninth-floor walkdown. Each day began with us clambering up nine double-height flights of metal stairs.

Every morning, I commuted to my new job in Mountain View, a pretty town with shops and cafés and a weekly farmers’ market. It would have been perfect for us. Our rent there would have been even lower, and I could have biked to work. Anyhoo, that’s not what we did.

Livia and I didn’t have any furniture for a year and a half. Our credit card debt was a black hole that ate all our income. And when Google gave out one thousand dollars in cash to every employee at Christmastime, I stopped on the way home that day to recklessly spend most of the bonus on a TV. We put the TV on the floor and used its box for a dining table. Otherwise, we were living hand to mouth. We’d brought only our cats and whatever else would fit in our Toyota Matrix. There hadn’t been room in the car or money left over for luxuries— like, say, a bed. We slept upstairs on the bedroom floor. At least it was carpeted.

At Google, when word got around that I was sleeping on the floor, some colleagues passed around a coffee can and raised eight hundred dollars for me to buy a bed. It was an amazingly kind gesture, and I was touched and grateful. However, I had no choice but to misallocate the funds and put them all toward my obscene car payments, which were several months overdue. As for the rest of our furniture, I brought home two garish, multicolor Google beanbag chairs. We sat in those beanbags and slept on the carpet for over a year—until I finally got some dough from Google.

I joined Blogger in September 2003. On August 19, 2004, Google finally had its much-anticipated public offering. The options I was granted as part of my hiring package were on a four-year vesting schedule. I had the right to buy them for a dime per share. By the time Google went public, I was one year vested, and the value per share quickly rose to over one hundred dollars. By the next year, it had nearly tripled. Every month, I was allowed to exercise more of my stock options, so I would pick up the phone, ask a guy on the other end to “sell, please,” put down the phone, and say, “Livia, I just made ten thousand dollars.” Little by little, we chipped away at our credit card debt.

But something was missing. Something I’d learned to love in my first job, the one I dropped out of college for, working for the art director at Little, Brown.

*****

On my first official day of work as a designer at Little, Brown, I walked into the art director’s office, and he silently beckoned me over to his desk. Without speaking or turning around, he reached his left hand over his right shoulder and plucked a book from the shelf. Like a Jedi Master, he never took his eyes off me. The book he had selected was a Pantone color swatch book, and it must have been the one he wanted, because he started looking through it. I stood quietly and watched as he slowly flipped through pages and pages of colors. Finally, he stopped in the range of the light browns and tans. He found what he wanted and tore out one of the little perforated swatches. He put it down on his desk, placed one finger on it, and wordlessly slid the chocolate-colored swatch slowly toward me. He then stated drily, “That’s how I take my coffee.”

Oh my God. I dropped out of college for this. I gave up an awesome free-ride scholarship. And now I have to go to Dunkin’ Donuts and ask the lady if she can do the coffee…

In three seconds, all those thoughts went through my head. As I was considering how to replicate that color at the local café with just the right amount of cream, the art director burst into laughter.

“I’m kidding! What kind of asshole do you think I am?” And so began my apprenticeship in graphic design and my introduction to a new way of thinking. The director, Steve Snider, and I worked side by side for over two years.

Book cover design teaches you that for any one project, there are infinite approaches. There were several factors at play in jacket design. A jacket had to satisfy us, the designers, artistically. It also had to please the author and the editorial department by doing justice to the content. It had to appeal to Sales and Marketing in terms of grabbing attention, and positioning and promoting the book. Sometimes designers were frustrated when their work was turned down by one department or the other. “Idiots. Fools,” they’d mutter, storming around the office. “This is a brilliant design.” And maybe it was. But our colleagues in Sales and Editorial had experience in their jobs, and I learned from Steve to assume that their concerns were legitimate.

Steve told me that once, for a biography of Ralph Lauren, he’d had a brilliant idea. He wanted to put out six different jackets, each in a solid, preppy color with the Polo logo in

the upper left in a contrasting color. That would be it. Ralph Lauren’s photo might be on the back. It would have been so iconic. But Editorial nixed it. So that was that. Steve was still proud of the idea, but he understood that his opinion wasn’t the be-all and end-all.

For a book called The Total Package, by Thomas Hine, which deconstructed the world of product packaging, I took a little cardboard box of powdered pudding. I opened it up, ungluing the seams, and flattened it out. I made a jacket that mimicked the deconstructed box, with its registration lines and that little rainbow where they test the ink colors. I was really proud of the final product. But, instead, they used an elegant black-and-white jacket with product shapes on it. My jacket wasn’t used, but the work wasn’t wasted. I put it in my portfolio. I still thought it was cool.

Steve taught me that having a cover turned down wasn’t a problem. It was an opportunity. My job wasn’t only to be an artist, creating work that pleased me. The challenge was to come up with a design that I loved and that Sales and Editorial thought was perfect. That was the true goal. “Your goals should be bigger than your ego,” Steve used to tell me. When I satisfied every department, only then would I have really succeeded in nailing a cover.

When Steve and I were stuck, we’d try to inspire ourselves. We’d take a precut matte frame and hold it up against different things around the office. Would the wood grain of a credenza make a good background? How about the blue sky outside? (Steve Snider would later use a blue sky with white clouds as the background for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.)

Sometimes there were restrictions that limited our options. We’d be told, “For this book, you have to use this photo. It was taken by the editor’s sister. It’s nonnegotiable.” And the art would suck.

I’d say, “Great, gimme that one.” Then I’d turn the art sideways and blow it up eight hundred percent. Now it was cool. There was always another way to go. My creativity wasn’t limited to five designs per book, or any other number. There was always another potential cover. I quickly learned not to care about the hard work that had been wasted. I didn’t take rejection personally. My creativity was limitless. I wanted to come up with another idea. I got a million of these, I thought. I could do this all day long! It was a matter of attitude.

Graphic design is an excellent preparation for any profession because it teaches you that for any one problem, there are infinite potential solutions. Too often we hesitate to stray from our first idea, or from what we already know. But the solution isn’t necessarily what is in front of us, or what has worked in the past. For example, if we cling to fossil fuels as the best and only energy source, we’re doomed. My introduction to design challenged me to take a new approach today, and every day after.

Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, off beat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to the greatest work.

Steve became my mentor. He drove me in to work every morning, and we became friends, playing tennis together on weekends. He was more than thirty years older than me, but we were a good match: I didn’t have a dad growing up; he had two daughters, and he’d always wanted a son. Eventually he started bringing me with him to present covers to the New York office. On the way, I’d ask him a million questions, not just about design, but about life. How did you know when to propose to your wife? How much money did you ask for at your first job? Asking questions is free. Do it!

With Steve’s encouragement and confidence in me, I left Little, Brown to start a freelance business doing book design. It was the late nineties, so it was inevitable that I would soon expand my services to include website design. Every new business then included website design. I could have started a dry-cleaning service, and the sign would have read ALTERATIONS/WEBSITE DESIGN. When my friends graduated college and decided to form a web company, I was already designing and building websites. We started Xanga together. Learning design with Steve set me on the path that led me where I am today.

*****

The notion that creativity is infinite drove my everyday energy, but that idea rose to the fore in 2005, when I was still at Google, working on Blogger, having finally climbed out of the debt that had plagued me for my entire adult life.

I was endlessly inspired by the characters at Google. There was Simon Quellen Field, a self-named older guy whom I’d met my very first day at orientation. I asked him what he was going to be doing at Google and he said, “I don’t know. Something that requires a PhD.” Simon had a big gray beard, a long gray ponytail, and a live parrot perched on his shoulder. He claimed that he owned a mountain in Los Altos, lived on top of it, and had a huge aviary and parrot farm.

During lunch, a guy named Woldemar (a.k.a. “He Who Is Sometimes Mistaken for He Who Shall Not Be Named”) would juggle by himself. I’d go over and talk to him: “Don’t you feel weird juggling here?”

“Nope.”

“I’d feel nervous and embarrassed.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“Okay, see you later, Woldemar.”

Misha was squat, with a potbelly, a beard, and a thick Russian accent. He tracked me down when I posted a paper on the Google intranet. (The paper considered that, like it or hate it, when you go for a job interview or on a date, people are going to Google you. You might as well take ownership of that. I suggested that Google let people convert the search results on their names into a social networking profile page, editing the results, and expanding from there. I called it Google Persona. I still think it’s a pretty good idea, but it’s up on the shelf, next to Steve’s Ralph Lauren book jackets.) Anyway, Misha read my post and took an interest in me. He hunted me down and said, “Biz, come. We take walk.”

Should I take a walk with this Russian guy? Why not?

So from then on, Misha and I would take strolls. We’d amble by the parrot guy and the juggling guy, and he would say things like “Biz, I invent new way to present time.” It was guys like Misha who made Google work.

Despite the welcome financial stability of the job and the endlessly fascinating characters, there was something missing from my work at Blogger: I didn’t have a chance to challenge myself every day.

*****

One of the ways I tried to fulfill that urge was to regularly brainstorm with Evan about what we might do next if we were to leave Google. One afternoon in 2005, he and I were carpooling home to San Francisco from Google in Mountain View. Ev was driving his yellow Subaru wagon, and I was riding shotgun.

“You know how people can record their voice in the web browser with Flash if they have a built-in microphone?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ev said.

“Well, we could build something that lets people record whatever they want. Then we could convert that to an MP3 on our servers.”

“Sure.”

“Okay,” I said. “I think I have a genius idea.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” Evan will listen to any idea I have, but he’s not one to get overexcited. He’s thoughtful, analytical.

We were driving through the northbound dot-com traffic on Highway 101, around San Mateo. I took a deep breath and went on.

“It seems like iPods are getting super popular. We could make it really easy for regular people to create recordings— talking, singing, interviews, or whatever the hell they want—by talking to a web page. Say lots of people do this, and we convert all their random recordings to files, MP3s.”

“Go on,” Evan said.

“We collect all these recordings in one place and make them available. Then other people can subscribe to whomever they like.” I explained to him how it might work technically, and how the recordings would sync between their computers and their iPods.

At last Ev’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. His “holy shit, that’s a good idea” face.

“So you see what I’m saying. We could basically make a service that democratizes audio in the same way Blogger democratizes the making of web pages. Anyone can have what is essentially his or her own radio show. Other people can easily get that show onto their iPods, so they can listen to all this stuff whenever they want. It could be a whole thing.”

You know I’m excited when I say, “It could be a whole thing.” “You might be on to something.” Evan is a tough nut to crack, but I’d cracked him.

“I told you I had a genius idea.”

*****

Once we got back to the city and started researching this notion, we found out I wasn’t quite as genius as I thought— other people had already thought of this and were calling it podcasting. Still, we thought there was a wide-open market for a mainstream, consumer, web-branded podcasting service.

Evan consulted with his friend Noah Glass, who had been working in this space—recording voices in the browser using Flash. Noah had named his service Audioblogger, because it posted people’s recordings to a blog. But he hadn’t yet put together anything that made it easy to subscribe to these recordings and get them on an iPod.

One night, Ev called while Livia and I were cooking dinner at our “loft” in Potrero Hill.

He said, “Noah and I are hashing out the idea you had in the car. Come join us.”

I glanced over at the broccoli, potatoes, and fake meat stew simmering on the stove. I was hungry. It looked good. “Nah,” I said. “You guys go ahead without me.” It’s moments like this that make and break fortunes in Silicon Valley. Stupid broccoli.

*****

Because Google had acquired Blogger, Evan had already made his fortune and was free to do whatever he wanted. (Yes, he bought a silver Porsche after the Google IPO. You can’t blame a kid from Nebraska for buying a toy like that when he becomes a multimillionaire.) The next thing he did was to quit Google, team up with Noah, and launch a podcasting company called Odeo.

A short time after that first call Ev told me that he had raised five million dollars to build Odeo with Noah. It had all happened so quickly, and suddenly I felt like I’d missed the boat. They’d started the company without me. Sure, Google was a great place to be. It was a hot company. I had no boss. I was earning maximum bonuses. I didn’t have to go in to work if I didn’t want to. I had two years of options left to vest. I could relax at Google and make millions of dollars. Or I could quit in order to work on a startup that might not succeed. (Spoiler: it failed.) But I wanted to be challenged every day.

Think about your work situation. Do you treat your creativity like a fossil fuel—a limited resource that must be conserved—or have you harnessed the unending power of the sun? Are you in an environment where creativity thrives? Is there room for new ideas every day? Can you make room?

I had moved out to California to work with Evan Williams, not with Google. That was more important to me than options or job security. I couldn’t sit around waiting for my options to vest when I had a chance to be a part of a startup with Evan. Sure, I was bringing a human side to Blogger, but the website was already well on its way. Leaving a stable, comfortable job is like starting again from scratch. It’s not easy, and it may not work the first time, but it can ultimately lead to greater things. I needed a new source of energy. It was time to hack on a new thing.

I called Evan and said, “I want to quit here and work at Odeo.”

He said, “Awesome.” So I quit Google.

Starting over is one of the hardest leaps to make in life. Security, stability, safety—it’s scary, if not downright irresponsible, to leave these behind. I was at Google in 2003 and I might still be there now. But I had faith in my future self. (After all, my once-future self had finally managed to pay off the Toyota Matrix.) I could help build something new.

By this point, after we had paid off our debt at last, Livia and I had broken the lease on our ninth-floor walk-down in Potrero Hill, rented a condo in Palo Alto, and I’d started biking to work. After two years of commuting from San Francisco to Mountain View, now I was driving from Palo Alto back up to the city to the Odeo offices. I’d reversed my commute.

And so we moved again. This time I asked Livia to decide where we should live, since my track record on this was so poor. She chose Berkeley, and because we were tired of landlords who wouldn’t allow us to bring along our menagerie of rescue animals, we wanted to own our home. Livy was the director of WildCare in San Rafael, a wild animal ER. What happens there is very different from a vet’s office, where people might bring in an obese housecat and try to help it live to be seventy. When people find injured animals—squirrels, hawks, owls, skunks—they bring them to WildCare for help. But unlike with dogs and cats, there’s no established protocol for some of the cases. (How do you make a prosthetic leg for a seagull?) And WildCare’s a nonprofit, so often it’s improvising with whatever’s been donated. A tiny mouse with a broken leg? They fix it with dental equipment from the seventies. Livy was saving lives. She’s wired to help others, and her life of altruism absolutely inspires me.

At the time, we ourselves were caring for two rescue dogs, two rescue cats, and a rescue tortoise. At various times we also had foster bunnies, crows, and rodents of varying sizes and shapes. So we took all the money we’d saved and used it as a down payment. We bought a little eight-hundred-square-foot house that had been built as the maid’s quarters to a bigger house. Half that square footage was the garage.

I’ll never forget celebrating my thirty-second birthday in that house. Livy, who did most of the work taking care of our animals, had gone to a medical conference for almost a week, and I was left to manage the animals by myself. It gave me a taste of the work she did professionally and often in our home. One of the dogs was prone to seizures. The other was anxious and attacked people. There was a cat that had been hit by a car and didn’t know when it was dripping poop. Livy left me with all of them plus, in the garage, five baby bunnies whose mother had been killed. They were really cute, but they were still nursing and had to be fed milk through a syringe. Then there were the crows, wintering in a giant aviary I’d crammed into the gap between our Berkeley house and the neighbor’s fence. The cage was big enough for them, but I had to stoop when I went in to feed them a stinky combination of dead smelt and fruit. Livy had said, “Whatever you do, don’t rile up the crows. They have broken wings. They shouldn’t flap them.” So I had to be quiet and gentle while I unclipped the food tray, replaced it with a new one, and reclipped it. But the stupid thing would not unclip. Wasps, attracted to the food, swarmed around me. I had to stay calm—I couldn’t rile the crows—during a twenty-minute wasp fest while I replaced the tray.

The second day Livy was gone was my birthday. At two o’clock that morning, Pedro, the older dog, started having a seizure. I ran upstairs in nothing but my tighty whiteys and found him with his tongue hanging out, eyes bulging. I thought he was dying. I picked him up and held him the way I thought I’d seen Livy do. He exploded dog diarrhea all over me. Then the phone rang. It was Livy, returning my desperate call for help. Holding the dog, covered in shit, I tried to answer without getting shit on the phone. Just then, the seizure stopped. “We’re fine,” I told Livy and quickly hung up. As I cleaned myself up, Pedro ran around like a puppy, overjoyed to be alive.

With the new house and a startup salary at Odeo, Livy and I were instantly back on our way to credit card debt. But hey, it wouldn’t have been a true leap of faith in myself if the stakes hadn’t been high. I had opted for risk and creativity, and that choice would serve me… eventually.


Excerpted from Things A Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone. Copyright © 2014 by Biz Stone.
First published 2014 by Grand Central Publishing. First published in the UK 2014 by Macmillan, 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Vanishing by Gerard Woodward – Extract

Vanishing

I

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.

‘Childhood injury.’

‘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.’

‘What’s that?’

‘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.’

‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘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?’

‘No.’

‘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.’

‘Correct.’

‘In fact, your tutor.’

‘Yes.’

‘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

II

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.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘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?’

III

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:

Dear Joe

Pay no attention to the bearer – he is troublesome. I am only writing this to get rid of him.

Yours ever
Terry (Sharp)

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson – Extract

Unwrapped Sky

 

Part I

ENDINGS

The God Aya was ever rebellious. When others lazed away their days in the pleasure garden, he could be found digging curiously at the things that lay beneath the ground, or performing one-man shows to entertain himself.

“Sit down!” Alerion yelled.

“No!” Aya danced a little dance, something like a jig. There was a twinkle in his eyes.

Alerion sighed and rolled over to sun himself once again. He splashed water on his face. “You’ll be the ruin of us.”

But Aya did not hear, for he was already building a great palace from crystals he had found deep beneath the earth. The palace glinted in the sun and when Aya laughed, the sound echoed through its many passageways like a stream tinkling over stones.

That was the way of it: the other gods, happy and passive; Aya, searching always for something new, building and creating, restless. The joy Aya took in his many ventures upset the other gods; deep within, they wished to subdue him. This was before the War and the Cataclysm, yet their causes were to be found in the gods’ resentment toward their restless comrade.

As Aya admired his palace, he did not notice Alerion’s brooding eyes settling on him.

—from The Legend of Aya

ONE

For the first time in ten years the minotaurs came to the city of Caeli-Amur from the winding road that led through the foothills to the north. There were three hundred or more of them. From the city they appeared as tiny figures—refugees perhaps. But as they approached, the size of their massive bodies, the magnificence of their horned bull heads, the shape of their serrated short-swords, became apparent. The minotaurs had come for the Festival of the Bull. When the week was over, they would descend from the white cliffs on which the city perched and board the ships that would carry them out over the Sunken City and home to their island of Aya.

The citizens watched the minotaurs silently, from their balconies or the city’s white walls. Some of the elderly leaned toward each other and whispered: “So few? There are so few of them.” Many of the children, especially from the factory districts, ran out to meet the magnificent creatures, laughing and calling to them until they drew close and the power and size of the minotaurs quieted them. Gliders swung out over the creatures and watched them from above, safe on the cool currents of air that swept in from the sea. Finally, when the minotaurs arrived at the city, some, who still held to the old ways, fell onto their knees in supplication. The minotaurs were still worshipped as gods by a few, though to harm them was considered a crime by all.

The orderly line broke apart when the minotaurs entered the city and spread out like tributaries into a delta: some climbed their way down to the water palaces and steam baths that ran along the peninsula at the northeast side of Caeli-Amur. Others caught the sooty street-trams through the windy streets along the cliffs, or took the cable car that ran from the massive machine tower near the piers to the top of the cliffs. Those minotaurs seeking knowledge ventured to Caeli-Amur’s famous cafés, where philosopher-assassins debated in the afternoon, drinking coffee and eating fruit. By nightfall, the minotaurs could be found in the liquor palaces and beer halls.

In one such drinking tavern called the Ruins, long after the sun had descended over the mountains to the west, Kata eyed a group of minotaurs. They dominated the place, which, perched on the edge of the factory district close to the city’s northern gate, was typical of workers’ establishments of the area. The proprietor of the Ruins had decorated the hot and dirty hall with a bar along one wall with fragments of ancient technology scavenged from the old places. In one corner, a lamp was cleverly constructed from a ragged half of a broken metallic sphere; the remnants of its insides—an intricate latticework of fine metals—were blackened and twisted. Strange angular implements hung on the walls: here what seemed to be a bulging glove ending in protuberances of unknown function, there a shield-sized fragment of a larger curved structure, geometric shapes cut into it. Had these pieces functioned in any way, the Houses would long ago have confiscated them. But as they were ruined, they remained weirdly beautiful decorations reminding the patrons of the long-lost glories of the world.

Usually filled with gray-eyed factory workers—the older ones keen to deaden their aching bodies with cheap beer, the young ones filled with rage and likely to end up fists flying in the surrounding alleys—the wooden stools and tables were as rough and worn as its clients. This evening, the men sat frightened and quiet in the corners, or slunk past the minotaurs, hoping not to brush against them. Minotaurs were quick to anger, especially when they were filled with beer or hot-liquor.

Kata knew she would have to approach; she needed two of them. But first things first, she thought as she took a drink of the bitter liquid from the flask at her waist. She kept her face still, though she wanted to grimace. The medicine tasted earthy and pungent, like dirt and ul-tree roots mixed together.

She watched and scratched distractedly at the metal sheaths that rubbed against her skin beneath her shirt. Realizing what she was doing, she stopped. The shirt was dark and loose, and she wore a skirt that reached her knees. Together they showed off her shoulder-length hair, which was black as the minotaurs’ eyes. Beneath her clothes Kata was lithe and unusually muscular; she was an athlete, of sorts.

A group of four minotaurs sat laughing at the front of the room, telling one another jokes about labyrinths and reminiscing about the Numerian Wars. She remembered the Festival of the Bull a decade earlier, when she was living on the streets after her mother’s death, but had forgotten the sheer physical presence of the minotaurs. Their shoulders and chests were like the statues of Caeli-Amur’s heroes that stood in the water-parks to the south of the city, where waterfalls and canals flowed gently through manicured gardens. The statues were seven, eight feet of white marble, muscles sculpted beneath their stone cloaks. But it was the minotaurs’ heads, those most valuable of trophies, that emanated majesty: the flaring nostrils, the wiry and perfumed hide, and most especially, the deep and dark eyes, mesmerizing and inhuman. Kata was afraid to look into the eyes, but she would have to.

To one side along the bar sat a slightly smaller minotaur with a dark hide. He did not speak but seemed to be brooding.

That one, she thought.

She slid down the bar and stood next to him. “Why are you watching us?” he asked.

She could not look him in the eye; she felt guilty. “How far is it to Aya, across the sea?”

“Five days, if the wind is good.”

“Why don’t you use steamers? You could be sure to arrive in time.”

“Tradition. Anyway, I do not trust steamers. What if they break on the open sea? What if those wheels along their sides fall off? Give me the wind any day. It cannot be conquered but offers its gifts freely. It is a trusty partner, at times.”

She looked up into his left eye and then away from its glistening darkness. Its inky magnificence horrified her.

“What have you here, Aemilius?” The booming voice came from another minotaur. She forced herself to look up at the massive head towering over her. She held his eye for a moment before looking away.

“You know,” he said, stepping toward her so his chest came close to her face, “there was a time when a minotaur could stay wherever he liked during the Festival of the Bull.”

The smaller one sat impassively. “Those days are gone, Cyriacus.” Kata stood up and placed her hand against Cyriacus’s chest, which was like a solid wall close to her face. He must have been almost seven feet tall. His presence was magnetic, his strength palpable. She pushed against him. He didn’t move. She pushed harder, and he took a step backwards. “It’s rude to stand so close to someone you do not know,” she said.

Cyriacus laughed and turned. “Hey, Dexion. We have a spirited one here.”

Aemilius leaned into her and said, “It is not wise to play with minotaurs. They are unpredictable and dangerous.”

“I can hold my own,” she replied. He nodded, turned, and walked away, leaving her with Cyriacus.

“Have a drink,” the minotaur said, handing her his own tankard.

She took a swig of the liquor, which burned her throat. She held back the cough. “Anlusian hot-wine,” she said, feeling her lips and mouth burn with the spices, the vapor rushing into her nose, making her eyes water.

“Yes. These new liquors fire the belly and the mind.”

“I live close to here,” she said. “I have more wine there, and it is free.”

He stood close to her again, and she felt the heat of his breath on her face. She forced herself to look up into his deep black eyes and put her hand against his chest again. This time she did not push him away.

The edge of the factory district was filled with families and older workers who had managed to escape living in the center of that industrial quarter. Here the apartment blocks rose to four and five stories and were built from bricks and concrete. Not crammed together like those in the center or the district or the slums close to the Arena, yet without the vastness of the Arantine where the elite of House Arbor built their mansions, Kata’s neighborhood was reflected its citizens’ status. Here they could breathe the fresh air that drifted from the sea, only occasionally punctuated by billows of smoke.

As Kata and Cyriacus walked along the narrow street where her apartment was located, the little street-child Henri ran next to them, “Kata, Kata! Yensa fudge, Yensa fudge?” Offering them a pouch of the toxic hallucinogen, he was unmoved by the minotaur. Kata liked that about the boy, whose face looked pure, despite the streaks of grime across it. She’d known a hundred like him: their innocent faces shrouded violent and animalistic instincts, the kind you needed to survive on the streets. Even now his eyes were wide as saucers, a sure sign he had eaten his own fudge.

She pushed the boy away. “Not now.”

The boy scurried around them to Cyriacus’s side. “Yensa fudge? Yensa fudge?”

The minotaur swung his arm out and the boy flew into the gutter, his eyes blinking rapidly. Kata looked back at him and shook her head quickly, as if to say, stop it.

Leaving the boy coughing behind them, Kata and Cyriacus climbed up the stairs that ran along the side of the building. Kata’s apartment was on the third floor of her building.

The key rattled in the lock, and the door swung open. Kata lit the lamp by the door. It was her windowless parlor, a kitchen off to one side. More stairs led up to her bedroom and a balcony that overlooked the eastern parts of the city, the Opera House and the docks.

Kata walked over to the table and leaned against it. Cyriacus slammed the door behind him—it shuddered on its hinges. He strode toward her, grasped her by the waist, lifted her like a doll, and sat her on the table, leaning in so she could smell the hot spices of the Anlusian wine and his hide, scented with pungent ginger and clove perfume. She touched the side of his face, feeling the thick, wiry hair. But still she could not look him in the eyes. Quickly she took her hands from his face so she would be ready.

Cyriacus stepped in and pulled her closer by the hips, so their bodies were hard against each other, Kata’s legs splayed around his trunklike thighs, her skirt riding up her legs. She placed her hands on the table behind her as he slowly and carefully unbuttoned her shirt with thick, powerful fingers. He looked down to see the waistband that held the sheaths behind her back.

“What?” he said, laughing. “A knife belt? What would a little—?” But Kata had already drawn both long-daggers. She plunged them into his ribs. Cyriacus let out a deafening roar and threw the table away from him. Kata flew through the air backwards, the table rolling and spinning beneath her. She struck the wall and fell to the floor, the table crashing against her shins. She felt no pain yet, just the rush of adrenaline.

Cyriacus stared down at the two daggers, his head shifting from left to right in disbelief. Only the handles were visible, one jutting from each side. Blood coursed in deep red streams down his waist and onto his thighs. He snorted, looked up at her, and said, “You’ve killed me.”

Kata struggled to her feet and stared back at him. She was horrified by the scene: everything was wrong. Though she had killed before, it had always been in the wars between the Houses. She had felled three men with her knives, watching them collapse in seconds before her. It was war and she felt no remorse. Now she could hardly bear the sight of this magnificent creature at the end of its life.

Astonishingly, Cyriacus came at her. She turned and ran to the stairs that led up to her bedroom, thumping footsteps close behind her. She pushed herself, taking the steps three at a time, her heart rattling in her chest. If she could make it to her bedside table, she might stand a chance.

She burst into the room and dived across the bed, reaching for her bolt-thrower on the small table. From the corner of her eye she saw him charge into the room. She turned, raised the bulky weapon, and fired a bolt. Blood spurted from his abdomen like pollen from an open flower.

He staggered back and came at her again. His nose flared and a rumbling sound—either in anger or pain, she couldn’t tell—came from his chest and throat.

She threw open the doors and ran onto the balcony, reloading the thrower. No man could withstand such physical punishment, yet Cyriacus still came at her, immense and godlike. She heard the final click of the thrower and raised it, but it was too late. He was on her, his force crushing her against the balcony wall. A cry escaped her lips. So, she thought, this is how it ends—I was wrong to commit this blasphemy.

His breath steamed from his nostrils; his long, thick tongue lolled from his mouth. “I will crack your neck like a rabbit’s,” he said, grasping the top of her head in one huge hand. “I will take you with me, woman, to the land of light.”

“Please,” she said, her voice broken with fear and resignation.

Cyriacus looked at her in puzzlement, blinked slowly, his hands losing their strength, and crashed to the floor like a cliff into the sea.

Kata left him there, changed her clothes, and walked out into the night. Henri was gone: off to peddle his fudge elsewhere; the Festival of the Bull would be good for business. He’d be back: the streets around her apartment were his turf. He slept somewhere in the neighborhood, perhaps in a dry drain or a nook beneath one of the apartments.

She cut through the factory district. It was full of dirt and grime, the smoke from the underground machines pumping out even at night. She had never forgotten her mother’s last words as she lay in the factory infirmary, her face a splotchy red-white, the contagion eating away at her insides: “Do whatever you must to survive, Kata. The gods know there’s nothing else to do.” And then blood had come to mother’s lips and dribbled down her chin, her chest had thrust forward unnaturally, an awful odor was loosed in the room, and she had died. The next day Kata was on the street. She cried that first day—never again.

After her mother died, Kata had grown up in these streets, running with the urchin gangs, selling trinkets, stealing, doing odds and ends for House Technis, running messages, setting up robberies and murders. She had been a pinch-faced girl, scrawny but sly. Like the other children, she had dreamed of joining the ranks of dispossessed philosopher-assassins who lived moment to moment in Caeli-Amur, debating in the cafés in the afternoon, lounging in the liquor halls in the evening, forever at the beck and call of the Houses. She had one more minotaur to kill and she would be free.

Now Kata climbed up through the city toward the mountaintop and along the edges of the factory district. She kept away from the larger streets where the city was alive with news of the minotaurs’ arrival, and after half an hour arrived at House Technis. She slid through a side gate in the outer wall that surrounded the complex of palaces and administration buildings, gardens and ponds.

She came to the enormous palace, like the monstrous invention of a child’s fantasy, the ancient building swamped by layer after layer of extension, new wings and towers that had been added, regardless of architectural taste or style. It appeared as if blocks had simply been piled crazily one upon the other without design. Even now, as Kata glanced up at the towering structure, builders were working on the west wing.

Kata passed along the labyrinthine corridors that, having also been built at different times, were forced to accommodate themselves to the planless structure to which they had been added. Pneumatiques whizzed and whirred overhead on hundreds of tiny wires. Along the walls, pipes rattled and shuddered and heaved: some carrying small barrels filled with instructions, others of unknown purpose. In the background, the constant thump of steam engines could be heard, as the building shifted the rooms deep inside its mobile southeastern wing around each other, according to some preplanned sequence. She had never been inside that particular technological marvel, but had heard that it was easy to lose yourself as each room rose, fell, or spun before locking temporarily into its new location.

She slipped past a constant stream of house agents rushing to and fro, some carrying boxes, others pushing carts filled with delicate new technologies from the New-Men in Anlusia, yet others dragging bound and hooded seditionist prisoners to the dungeon. The place was a cacophony of voices yelling to each other all manner of things: what directions to Subofficiate Aruki’s office, about the latest strike to break out in what was becoming a wave of industrial unrest, about favors offered or claimed in return. Guards leaned against the walls beside their bolt-throwers, shortswords dangling from belts. Others played dice in a little alcove.

Kata passed through small grottoes; a large room filled with secretaries lined in rows, each busily shuffling papers; another where cramped offices, enclosed by five-foot walls, stood like little buildings in the vastness of the room. Pneumatics zipped in and out of the little offices as if running on a vast network of spiderwebs.

She found Officiate Rudé, a wiry little half-Anlusian administrator, in his office. Like most Anlusians, he had a youthful visage for someone so late in life: it was his quick and energetic movements, his slim and boyish body. He told her to wait as he signed a number of papers.

“Strikes, strikes, strikes.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “Why should the workers be so belligerent now, when things are changing so fast?”

“Perhaps it’s because things are uncertain that they think they can seize their opportunity.” Kata was aware that as winter had broken and spring set in, a wave of strikes has broken out in the city. The first few—the weavers who worked for House Arbor and the fishermen employed by House Marin—had been threatened into returning to work. Later, subofficiates were replaced, seditionists thrown into the dungeons, adjustments made to the factories’ operations. But that had not stopped more spot-strikes from breaking out like little fires on a smoldering summer’s day.

“Well, the House has had enough. The time for kindnesses is over.” Rudé looked up from his forms. “Let’s get to work then, shall we?”

Things were set in motion. Rudé accompanied her with two workmen back to the apartment in the carriage that would secretly carry away the minotaur. She took them to the balcony but avoided the sight of the minotaur’s body.

Rudé took a sharp intake of breath and ran his hands through

his fire-red hair speckled slightly with white. “Majestical,” he said. “Fascinating. I should have liked to talk to him…. I didn’t think you would do it.”

“I told you I would,” said Kata.

“I knew you were hard, but even so.”

She stole a glance at the creature. It lay at odd angles against the balcony wall.

“Get to work,” Rudé ordered.

The workmen opened their cases and took from them mechanical saws and jagged knives with wicked blades.

“And be careful of the horns. They’re the most valuable pieces. And the hide,” said Rudé.

“You people… ,” Kata said.

“Remember, you asked for this job.” Rudé looked away from the minotaur across the city.

Kata could not bear the high whine of the saw or the wet thump of the minotaur’s flesh, so she walked down the stairs.

As Rudé followed her, he called back: “Don’t damage the eyes. Our thaumaturgists need those eyes for their preparations. Don’t get anything in the eyes.” He followed Kata into the room and said, “One more, Kata, and your debt will be repaid. Think about that. Think about how hard you’ve worked. Just one more minotaur.”

“Even if I repay the debt, I’ll never be free of you. None of us ever will. It doesn’t matter which House, you’re all the same.”

Rudé threw his head back and laughed. “Kata, remember, without us you’d still be on the street. Remember whom this building belongs to.” Technis had bought many of the buildings in the area, as if they weren’t content with their other forms of control but craved power over the citizens’ everyday lives.

From above, she could still hear the sickening sound of meat and bone being cut to pieces. When they left, she suddenly felt an aching in her legs and back. She looked down at her blood-covered shins, pieces of skin scraped into ridges near her ankles. The adrenaline had long ago left her and now all she could feel was pain.

TWO

Two nights after the death of Cyriacus, Kata watched the Sun Parade, celebrating the moment four hundred years earlier when the sun had broken through the fog and Saliras’s forces had been routed by the minotaurs and the Caeli-Amurians together. CaeliAmur was a city of festivals. Festival of the Sun, Aya’s Day, the Stars Descent, Celebration of the Dancing Goat, Alerion’s Day, the Twilight Observance—rare was the month when there was no celebration to be had.

The parade descended from Via Gracchia on the top of the cliffs toward the Market Square by the piers. Figures walked with hideous masks: distorted faces that looked as if they had melted in great heat; goats with gigantic eyes and too-thin faces; and, of course, bulls. Others played thin, high-pitched flutes or circular drums that fit beneath their arms and could be squeezed to change the pitch. All were dressed outrageously in oranges, reds, yellows. Crowds watched from the side of the road, clapping at the leering masks. Scattered among them were the minotaurs.

Kata glanced at the crowd. On the other side of the road stood the smaller and darker minotaur she had met at the bar. She emptied the acrid medicine from her flask, gagging as she swallowed it. It was the last of the preparation. When she had finished the job, she would be able to afford more. She had spent most of her remaining money at the markets, buying deadly herbs. From these she had prepared poison, mixing it with the flagon of wine, which she then placed in her cupboard. She could not risk another fight: Who would have believed anyone could be as strong as Cyriacus, to take so much physical punishment?

She had poison enough for ten men. That should be enough.

She scuttled gingerly through a break in the parade, dodging the drummers and dancers. Her shins were still scabby and bruised.

“Hello,” she said to the minotaur.

“Ah,” he said, “the woman who can hold her own. And did you?”

She smiled. His eyes did not seem so terrible this time; they seemed to be laughing. “I always hold my own.”

“I see. I’m Aemilius.”

“Kata,” she said. “You’re not marching in the parade.”

He shrugged and looked to the sky. “Look at the moon. Can you see Aya’s handprints, side by side, from when he threw it into the sky?”

“It’s bright, isn’t it?”

“So bright that on a clear and calm night like this, you can see the Sunken City through the crystal water.”

“No.” Kata frowned in disbelief. She knew that Caeli-Enas, Caeli-Amur’s sister city, was deep beneath the ocean. But she had always assumed that it was lost in the murky depths.

“I swear. Would you like to see?”

She hesitated. She should take this chance. It was falling into her lap. “Yes.”

They marched together up to the great steam tower—full of thumping and clattering from the engine at its base—that powered the cable car from the top of the cliff to the piers. There were too many people on the streets, and the walk would have been a long one.

They entered a doorway in the tower’s base and climbed wide stone stairs up to a wide entrance chamber with a platform opening out to the air on one side. A bustle of white-haired people with pointy beards or shawls or aging, curved backs stood around, whispering to each other excitedly. To view the city and the Sun Parade from the cable car was popular among the older citizens. The youth lined the streets or marched in the parade itself.

Kata and Aemilius watched as a cable car swung around the rear of the tower and reemerged at the open side of the chamber. They stepped into the car, which filled with people around them. There was no conductor—the cable car had always been free in

Caeli-Amur, a remnant from ancient days perhaps. The workers who kept it going were supported by donations from the citizens. Some civic spirit still lived on in the city.

As they swung over the city, looking at the parade winding below like a cascade of lights, Kata noticed the passengers in the carriage kept away from Aemilius. She recognized their wide-eyed apprehension.

“You realize the effect you have on those around you,” she whispered to him.

“Of course.” Aemilius did not look about: to do so would be undignified.

“You have a strange bearing; you hold yourself apart somehow.”

“And you,” he said. “You do also.”

She looked away from him, down at the street-trams caught in the traffic below. The streets were like rivers of yellow and flickering lights. She could think of nothing more to say.

They reached the docks, nine piers jutting into a glassy, silent ocean. Clippers and cutters floated between monolithic steamers, the new and the old side by side. The piers were quiet: there were no signs of the Xsanthian dockworkers and only a few boatmen moved around carrying rope or boxes of tools. The moon hovered above, lighting a section of the water in one silvery molten band. Aemilius paid a boatman and took a small rowboat.

“It’s too far,” she said. “We need a steamer.” “It’s not too far. Get in.”

She hesitated, then stepped onto the dark wooden planks of the boat.

Aemilius rowed away from the city, over the glassy ocean, the oars making satisfying creaks against the wooden oarlocks and subtle splashes as they entered the water. The two of them were silent as they left the city far behind, though they could still hear the laughter and the pipes and drums of the festival floating over the water.

“Look,” said Aemilius after some time.

Kata peered over the edge of the boat and put her hand to her chest in astonishment. “You can see it, you can really see it.”

Beneath them Caeli-Enas shimmered silvery white. Buildings and boulevards came suddenly into focus and then blurred again as the water moved quietly beneath them. Perched on its sunken hill, the great white dome and marble pillars of a statuesque building emerged briefly into view. Over four hundred years that city had slept beneath the ocean and with it, the last secrets of the ancients. A sense of wonder awakened in Kata. For the first time in years, she felt that the world was a large place filled with possibility. “Most of the city was white marble,” said Aemilius. “I walked those streets when I was young. I watched white-caparisoned horses pull crow-black carriages. I watched street-officers lighting gas lamps on hot summer nights as lovers drifted through the wide streets.”

“How old are you?” asked Kata. “Five hundred and twelve.”

Kata drew a long, quiet breath. So old. Eventually she said, “There is a sadness about you.”

“Look,” he said. “Can you see something moving down there? They say there are still sea serpents with heads like houses, bodies big as Numerian caravans.”

“There are,” she said. “I’ve seen them. They come closer to land during the winter.” She caught a glimpse of something snaking through the Sunken City’s streets. It seemed to warp in and out of existence. A chill ran down her spine. Should the creature surface, their rowboat would capsize and the serpent would swallow them whole.

“Perhaps we should head back,” she said.

Again, Kata led a minotaur up the cobblestoned alleyway to her house. Again the creature came in without encouragement, looking around her parlor with interest. He stopped at the bookshelf that held the few philosophical classics she could afford: Marka’s Unintentional Action and Ugesio’s Morality and Madness, the two most popular texts.

“You taught yourself philosophy?” he said. “A little.”

“This book Unintentional Action, what does it argue?” Aemilius said.

“Ah, one of the new philosophers. Marka argues we only have the illusion of choice, the illusion of free will. He says that we are controlled by our past, by our surroundings, that we are forced into certain actions.” The streets where Kata lived as a child, the death of her mother, flashed into her mind, as did her desperate and ongoing desire to escape them, to escape the memory of them.

“And what do you think?” Aemilius asked.

“I think he’s right. We are all forced to do things we’d rather not, to compromise.”

“But is it not possible that our very knowledge of those forces allows us some measure of freedom?”

Kata pressed her lips. “I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t even know where I am.”

“The ancients said that everything has its place,” said Aemilius. “Everything finds its place.”

“Those days have passed.”

“Perhaps.”

“Would you like a drink?” She felt a knot in her stomach and tried to swallow, her throat dry with fear. Nausea built up in her body. Her little finger twitched, then was still. Oh no, she thought, not now. She fought the rising sickness back.

“Yes,” he said.

She walked to her small kitchen, took the flagon of wine, two cups, and placed them on the bench. She stared at them.

“You have no windows in this room?”

“It’s hemmed in on all sides. Above, there is a balcony.” “It is a sparse house. Not much comfort here.”

“As much comfort as I need. I fought for this place. I struggled for it. Even now it is not yet mine.” She stared at the flagon. She should pour the cups, but she could not. Nausea rose again in her body. Oh no, she thought. Quickly. She unstopped the flagon but set it down again on the bench before she dropped it. Her legs gave way beneath her and her body shook violently, as if her legs and arms were driven by an engine. She gurgled as the fit came on. Aemilius was above her, grasping her shoulder.

“Kata, can you hear me?” He grasped her hand. “Squeeze my hand. Try to squeeze my hand.”

Though her body shook and spasmed, she was aware of his presence above her. He held her hand and her shoulder and he comforted her. Though his voice faded away, as if down a long corridor, she was not entirely alone.

When the fit was over, she felt as if she had been wrung like a wet piece of clothing, twisted and distorted and empty. Aemilius carried her upstairs to her bed and laid her down.

“You will be all right now,” he said. “But you must sleep.”

Kata closed her eyes and opened them again. Aemilius was sniffing the air and looking around curiously.

Exhausted, Kata drifted off to the sight of him sitting above her, his deep eyes impassive, occasionally closing as he looked down on her. When she woke he was gone.

The following afternoon, Rudé let himself in to Kata’s apartment as she lay on her cushions in the corner of the parlor, still exhausted from the fit. It took her a day to recover, at least, and now that she had run out of the preparation that eased her condition, her body would remain tired and drawn.

“This is my house,” she said to Rudé, lifting her head with effort. “You can’t just come in here.”

“But I can,” he said, holding up his key, straightening his sharplined clothes. “And I will.”

“I need money, for medicine.”

“Do you now? The agreement was two minotaurs. Not one.”

“I need an advance.”

“I see. Well, don’t ever claim that House Technis is not generous, that it doesn’t look after its own.” He carefully placed a pile of ten florens on the table, stacked like a little tower. “By the end of the Festival, yes?”

“Yes.”

There was a knock on the door. Rudé, his wiry little body always full of quick movements, darted against the wall for protection. Officiates lived in fear, even though the vicious war between House Arbor and House Technis had recently fallen into a lull. It was rare to find them out on the streets, meeting their agents and assassins face-to-face, which was mostly the province of the subofficiates. It was a measure of the mission’s importance that Rudé should oversee it himself. Unlike the Directors, who were surrounded by aides of all kinds, officiates needed to organize their own protection, if they felt it warranted.

“Get the door,” Rudé said, pulling out a long-knife from underneath his jacket.

Kata pushed herself to her feet and wearily opened the door. Aemilius stood towering behind it.

Exhausted, she hesitated. She couldn’t think of a way to stop the minotaur from entering and meeting Rudé. In any case, she was pleased to see him. His presence calmed her, as if he were a cool rock against which she could lean, close her eyes, and rest her face. Guilt washed through her now. For he had been nothing but gentle and caring, and she had been—no, it was best not to think about her deception. These thoughts rushing though her head, contradictory feelings swirling within her, Kata finally said, “Come in.”

“I came to see if you were feeling better.”

“I am, thank you.”

“Well, look,” said Rudé, smiling slightly, the knife hidden. “A minotaur. Fantastic… Let me see. But you’re a little small for a minotaur, aren’t you?”

“Is greatness measured by size?” asked Aemilius.

Rudé approached Aemilius, looking even smaller as he came close to the minotaur. “Incredible.”

“A friend of yours?” Aemilius asked Kata.

“Oh,” said Rudé, “I’ve known Kata since she was just a girl. I’ve seen her… grow up.”

In those days, Rudé had kept in touch with the children on the streets of the factory district. “Hello, Kata,” he had always greeted her ebulliently. “No smile for me today?” Sometimes he had taken out a little toy, a windup bird or a mechanical man, and given it to one of the children. The urchins had prized the toys above all others, for they were made with rare technical skill. Powered by springs and wires, the birds would fly and the men would march. Some were even powered by thaumaturgy. The children had never seen anything like them. Rudé had taken special interest in Kata. Her sheer strength of will seemed to impress him. She was the quickest messenger, the most determined servant. “My little Kata,” he had said. When she was fourteen, he said, “I know a philosopherassassin who might be interested in taking on a pupil.” Kata had leaped for the chance: to be a philosopher-assassin, that was the dream of all the children. It was their only escape from the factory district. And so she met Sarrat the Numerian and escaped the grimy factories and the filthy alleyways that surrounded them.

Now, as Rudé obliquely mentioned those days, Aemilius nodded, as if thinking.

“I’d better go,” said Rudé, grinning quickly. “There are things to do! But I should very much like to see you again, minotaur. I should very much like to talk to you.”

“Perhaps you shall,” said Aemilius as Rudé closed the door behind him. “Strange,” he said to Kata, “is he a New-Man, with all that quick energy?”

“Yes, he is half-Anlusian,” said Kata, swaying slightly on her feet. “You can see it in his actions, his movements… his ambition.” “I have never been to Anlusia, but I should very much like to see it. They say the New-Men are voracious, insatiable, that they take everything they can and destroy it to rebuild it. They say their city is constantly growing, constantly changing—even more than Caeli-Amur!”

“But is that any way to live? Isn’t that just distracting yourself from who you are, by concentrating solely on what you do, what you have?” She pursed her lips: she sounded just like Sarrat, who held to the Cajian philosophy of asceticism. It was a philosophy she’d rejected, and even now she thought of the time she’d spent on the streets, of her desire to own her house. She was no ascetic. “Of course. And for that reason I should like to see it. To watch the New-Men build their technical wonders, only to throw them away.”

Kata shuffled to the kitchen. The flagon was where she left it. “Would you like some wine? We didn’t have a chance last night.”

“No. I have someone to meet. Thank you, though.”

Kata released the tension that had been building up in her body. She was not well enough today. She returned the flagon to the cupboard and walked him to the door.

“Rest,” Aemilius said. “I will.”

She closed the door behind him and collapsed onto the cushions in the corner. She would kill him, or perhaps another minotaur, tomorrow. But even as she thought it, her mind was filled with doubt.


Excerpted from Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson. Copyright © 2014 by Rjurik Davidson.
First published 2014 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, an imprint of St Martin’s Press. This edition published in the UK 2014 by Tor, 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam – Extract

The Man Who Couldn't Stop

ONE

Our siege mentality

An Ethiopian schoolgirl called Bira once ate a wall of her house. She didn’t want to, but she found that to eat the wall was the only way to stop her thinking about it. She didn’t want to think about the wall either, in fact she was greatly disturbed by the ideas and images of it that dominated her mind. The only way she could make the thoughts of the wall go away, and calm the anxiety they caused, was to follow a strange and unbearably strong urge to eat it. So she did; day after day, for year after year. By the time she was 17 years old she had eaten eight square metres of the wall – more than half a tonne of mud bricks.

Bira lived in the capital city, Addis Ababa. Her father died when she was young and she grew up with her mother. Bira had eaten mud every day for as long as she could remember, since she was a little girl. It became worse as a teenager, when she started to take it only from the wall of her home. As she did so, the images and thoughts came more vividly and more often, which only intensified her need to eat to find relief. The mud made Bira constipated and gave her severe stomach aches. Ethiopian traditional healers tried to treat her with prayers and holy water and advised her simply to stop eating the mud. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t stop her thoughts about the wall, and so she couldn’t stop eating it.

One day, Bira couldn’t cope any more. Her distended stomach throbbed with pain and her abdomen was tight with cramp. Her throat was scratched raw from the straw in the bricks and her body riddled with parasites from the soil. In tears, she walked to her local hospital. At the time, Ethiopia had eight psychiatrists for a nation of 70 million people. Bira was fortunate. She managed to see one of them. She told him that she needed help. She knew her thoughts were wrong, but she knew she couldn’t stop them alone.

*****

An average person can have four thousand thoughts a day, and not all of them are useful or rational. Mental flotsam comes in many forms. There are the irrelevant words, phrases, names and images that flash unprompted into our minds, often as we perform some mundane task. There are earworms: tunes that wedge themselves in our heads, more prosaically called stuck-song syndrome. And there are negative thoughts – ‘I cannot do this,’ ‘I must quit’ − the sworn enemy of sports psychologists everywhere.

Then there are the very strange thoughts: those occasional, random and unprompted ideas that seem to emerge from nowhere and stun because they are vile, immoral, disgusting, sickening – and just plain weird. The seductive question, ‘what if ’? What if I was to jump in front of that bus? What if I was to punch that woman?

These kinds of thoughts are more common than most people realize. Ask around. A friend of mine has a need to check the toilet bowl for rats before he sits. Another unplugs the iron and places it in an unusual place when he finishes with it, so he knows for certain the answer when his mind demands later: are you sure, really sure, that you turned it off? One tortured soul spent an evening unable to ignore the repetitive thought that he may have scrawled across an application form for his dream job the word cunt. Most people have these kinds of strange thoughts. Most shake them off. Some people don’t.

When we cannot make our strange thoughts go away they can lead to misery and mental illness. The friends I mention above did not convert their strange thoughts in this way. But I did.

I turned mine into obsessive-compulsive disorder.

*****

The day that the Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna died in a crash during a Grand Prix in Italy, I was stuck in the toilet of a Manchester swimming pool. The door was open but my thoughts blocked the way out.

It was May 1994. I was 22 and hungry. After swimming a few lengths of the pool, I lifted myself from the water and headed for the locker rooms. Down the steps – one, two, three – ouch! I had scraped the back of my heel down the sharp edge of the final step. It left a small graze, through which blood bulged into a blob that hung from my broken skin. I transferred the drop to my finger and a second swelled to take its place. I pulled a paper towel from above the sink to press to my wet heel. The blood on my finger ran with the water as it dripped down my arm. My eyes, of course, followed the blood. And the anxiety, of course, rushed back, ahead even of the memory. My shoulders sagged. My stomach tightened. It had been four weeks since the incident at the bus stop, and, as much as I told myself that it no longer bothered me, I was lying.

I had pricked my finger on a screw that stuck out from the bus shelter’s corrugated metal. It was a busy Saturday afternoon and there had been lots of people around. Any one of them, I thought, could easily have injured themselves in the way I had. What if one had been HIV-positive? They could have left infected blood on the screw, which then pierced my skin. That would put the virus into my bloodstream. Oh, I knew the official line was that transmission that way was impossible. The virus couldn’t survive outside the body. But I also knew that, when pressed for long enough, those in the know would weaken that to virtually impossible. They couldn’t be absolutely sure. In fact, several had admitted to me there was a theoretical risk.

Stood quietly in the toilets of the changing rooms, still dripping wet, my swimming goggles in one hand and the blood-stained paper towel in the other, I ran through the sequence of events at the bus stop once again. I told myself how there hadn’t been any blood on the screw when I had checked it, or at least I didn’t think there had been. Oh, why hadn’t I made absolutely sure?

Someone else banged through the door into the swimming pool changing rooms. They whistled. I looked at my finger. Wait a minute. WHAT THE HELL HAD I DONE? I had put a paper towel on a fresh cut. OH JESUS CHRIST. There could have been anything on that paper towel. YOU STUPID BASTARD. I looked at the paper towel, now soggy. THERE IS BLOOD ON IT. Well, of course, it’s my blood. HOW CAN YOU BE SURE? Someone with Aids and a bleeding hand could have touched it before me. OH JESUS. I threw it into the bin, pulled a second from the dispenser and inspected it. No blood. That helped, a little. No blood on the next one either. BUT THEY COULD HAVE DONE. I pulled the original paper towel back from the bin. It was bloody. IF THIS IS SOMEONE ELSE’S BLOOD THEN WHY ARE YOU PICKING IT UP? I quickly washed my hands. AND WHAT IF THEY BLED INTO THE SINK TOO? DON’T TOUCH YOUR FUCKING HEEL. DON’T

TOUCH YOUR FUCKING HEEL. No chance of that. WHAT IF THAT ISN’T EVEN THE PAPER TOWEL YOU

THREW IN THE BIN? It could be someone else’s paper towel that I was handling, someone else’s blood. I looked in the bin. I couldn’t see any other paper towels with blood on them. WHAT ABOUT THAT ONE?

The whistling man was ready to swim. He came to the sink, grabbed a paper towel, blew his nose and threw it into the bin. I did the same. He looked at me. I smiled. He didn’t. He walked away. I didn’t. He finished his swim and left. I couldn’t.

Cycling home later, I was pleased with the solution I had found. I was getting somewhere! I heard the birds and felt the spring sunshine on my face. Well, of course I couldn’t have caught Aids from scratching myself on the screw at the bus stop. That was ridiculous, I could see that now. I had nothing to worry about on that score. I pulled my swimming trunks from my bag and placed them on my bedroom radiator. I rummaged in the wardrobe for my winter gloves and put them on to unfold my swimming towel and carefully retrieve the damp and blood-stained paper towel wrapped inside. I placed it on the radiator next to the trunks. It would take about ten minutes, I guessed, before it would be dry enough to check properly. Then I reached back into the bag and found the other crumpled paper towels, the ones I had lifted from the bin, and laid those out on my desk. I would check those as well, check them properly (impossible in the changing rooms), and then surely that would be that. Then I could put all this behind me. Phew! I took off the gloves and turned on the TV. The Grand Prix was about to start.

*****

Those are my strange thoughts. That is my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I obsess about ways that I could catch Aids. I compulsively check to make sure I haven’t caught HIV and I steer my behaviour to make sure I don’t catch it in future. I see HIV everywhere. It lurks on toothbrushes and towels, taps and telephones. I wipe cups and bottles, hate sharing drinks and cover every scrape and graze with multiple plasters. My compulsions can demand that after a scratch from a rusty nail or a piece of glass, I return to wrap it in absorbent paper and check for drops of contaminated blood that may have been there. Dry skin between my toes can force me to walk on my heels through crowded locker rooms, in case of blood on the floor. I have checked train seats for syringes and toilet seats for just about everything.

As a journalist, I meet a lot of people and shake their hands. If I have a cut on my finger, or I notice that someone who I talk to has a bandage or a plaster over a wound, thoughts of the handshake and how to avoid it can start to crowd out everything else. My rational self knows that these fears are ridiculous. I know that I can’t catch Aids in those situations. But still the thoughts and the anxiety come.

The psychiatrist who Bira saw in Addis Ababa told her she had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) too. She had persistent thoughts that were inappropriate. She could not ignore or suppress these thoughts, which made her anxious. To reduce and prevent this anxiety she developed compulsive behaviour. The compulsions fuelled the obsessions. Together, the obsessions and compulsions took up so much time and caused such distress that they disrupted her life.

Most people have heard of OCD but there is much confusion about the condition. It’s commonly seen as a behavioural quirk. In fact, OCD is a severe and crippling illness, and one defined as much by the mental torment of recurring strange thoughts as physical actions such as repeated handwashing. Bira was diagnosed with moderately-severe OCD. Yes, a girl who ate an entire wall of her house was thought to have it only moderately-severe. There are plenty of people out there who have it worse. Bira spent about two hours a day thinking about the wall and eating mud. Yet, on average, OCD patients can waste up to six hours a day on their obsessions and four hours on their compulsions. A Brazilian man called Marcus had OCD that centred on obsessive thoughts about the shape of his eye-sockets, so much so that he was compelled to touch them constantly with his fingers. Marcus prodded himself blind.

*****

It is hard to communicate obsession – severe, clinical obsession, a true monopoly of thought. Just as the human brain struggles to comprehend the magnitude of geological time, or the speed at which electronics can operate, or even the number of times a second the wings of a hummingbird can beat, so it can seem incredible that a single notion, a unique concept, can truly dominate someone’s mind for days, weeks, months, years. Here is the best description I have.

Consider a personal computer, and the various windows and separate operations that the machine can run concurrently. As I write this, there is another window open in the background that updates my email, and a separate web browser that, right now, tracks football scores. When I choose, I can toggle between these windows, make them bigger or smaller, open and close others as I see fit. That is how the mind usually handles thoughts. It shares conscious concentration between tasks, while the subconscious changes the content of each window, or draws our attention among them.

Obsession is a large window that cannot be made to shrink, move or close. Even when other tasks come to the front of the mind, the obsession window is there in the background. It grinds away and is ready to sequester attention. It acts as a constant drag on the battery and degrades the performance of other tasks. And after a while it just gets really frustrating. You can’t force quit and you can’t turn the machine off and on. Whenever you are awake, the window is there. And when you do manage to turn your attention elsewhere, you are aware that you deliberately do so. Soon enough, the obsession will reclaim the focus. Sometimes, usually when you wake, it is absent. The screen is blank. But push a key, move the mouse, engage the brain, and it whirrs and clicks back into place.

As recently as the 1980s, psychiatrists thought that clinical obsessions and compulsions were extremely rare. They believe now that between 2 per cent and 3 per cent of people suffer from OCD at some point in their life. That means more than a million people in Britain are affected directly, and five million more in the United States. OCD is the fourth most common mental disorder after the big three − depression, substance abuse and anxiety. OCD is twice as common as autism and schizophrenia. The World Health Organization has ranked OCD as the tenth most disabling medical condition. Its impact on quality of life has been judged more severe than diabetes. But people with OCD typically wait a decade or more before they seek help.

OCD affects men and women equally. It begins usually in early teens or late adolescence and early adulthood, though its effects can last a lifetime. It respects no cultural, ethnic, racial or geographical boundaries. OCD is a social handicap and a societal burden. Children with OCD are more likely to want friends, but less likely to make them. Adults with OCD are more likely to be unemployed and unmarried. They drag down their families. They are more likely to live with their parents. They are more likely to be celibate. If they do marry, they are less likely to have children. They are more likely to divorce. Yet many front-line doctors still fail to recognize the signs and symptoms of OCD or their significance. Few people with OCD spontaneously recover, yet two-thirds of sufferers never see a mental health professional.

*****

The word ‘obsess’ first appeared in English in the early 1500s. Drawn from the Latin obsidere, literally ‘before to sit’ but more commonly defined as ‘to besiege’, the term has a military background. To obsess a city was to surround but not yet control it. The related possidere, from which we derive posses and possessed, described the subsequent stage, when a victorious army would take control of the city and conquer its people.

The drift of these words to describe troubled individuals, first in religious terms and later in clinical language, carried the same distinction. The original use of obsess reflected the belief that the strange thought – in those days attributed to an evil spirit – originated outside the victim. To be obsessed was something that happened to someone; a person was not obsessed with an idea – it was the idea that obsessed them. This was different from someone who was possessed, when the spirit was thought to invade and control a person from the inside.

A diagnosis of whether someone was obsessed or possessed by evil spirits often came down to whether the victim was aware of the malevolent presence; whether they recognized their thoughts as alien and so tried to resist them. Those who were obsessed were considered able to do this. Victims of possession, because they had surrendered their soul to the invading demons, were not. They remained unaware of what was happening. The distinction survives to this day. A diagnosis of OCD usually requires a degree of what psychiatrists call insight – an obsessed person must identify the strange thoughts that drive the obsession as foreign and distressing and must make efforts to reject them.

Today, obsession is a more widely used word. Because thoughts usually come and go, the head a constant swirl of involuntary emotions and sensations, it takes only a drag of coalescence of this mental stardust around a recurrent theme to form a temporary lump, a sticking point, that society calls an obsession. In this way, people say they are obsessed when they cannot get an attractive person out of their minds, or when they cannot quell thoughts about a certain food. Our minds are so fluid that any sluggish current draws our attention. We say we obsess about sport, sex, shoes, cream buns, cars and a thousand other pleasures, sometimes all at the same time. But in time, often no time at all, these so-called obsessions break away and are carried off and consumed by the mental stream. That is not the obsession we will talk about here. It would not make somebody eat a wall.

The obsessive thoughts of OCD are different and tend to cluster around a limited number of themes. Obsessions of contamination with dirt and disease are the most frequent and feature in about a third of cases. Irrational fears of harm − did I lock the back door? Is the oven switched off? – are the next most common, and affect about a quarter of people with OCD. About one in ten wrestles with an obsessive need for patterns and symmetry. Rarer, but still significant, are obsessions with the body and physical symptoms, religious and blasphemous thoughts, unwanted sexual thoughts, and thoughts of carrying out acts of violence. It’s because obsessive thoughts are so often within these taboo and embarrassing subjects that so many people with OCD choose to hide them.

Obsession has no regard for rational explanation. No pathology of thought can be solved with more thought. The brilliant twentieth-century mathematician Kurt Gödel, a friend and colleague of Albert Einstein, lived his life for rationality. His incompleteness theorem used logic to explore and expose the limits of logic. Yet Gödel suffered from the wildly irrational and obsessive idea that he would accidentally be poisoned, from tainted food perhaps, or by gas that escaped from his refrigerator. He would eat no meal that his wife did not taste first. When she became ill and could not do this for him, the obsessive siege on his mind made Gödel starve himself to death.

*****

Why I am writing this book? Obsession encourages attention to turn inward and drains focus from relationships with others. OCD cements the presence of an individual at the centre of their mind and their actions. And it distracts. There is always something else that you would rather think about, or not think about. I don’t want to be selfish any more. I now have two children who need me. I don’t want them to go through what I did. I don’t want them to develop obsessions, to be held hostage by their strange thoughts, to think up a monster. And if they do, I want to be able to help them.

The best way to do that, I believe, is to investigate these strange and obsessive thoughts, to see how they work, where they come from and what we can learn from them. To question how the brain, our closest ally and biggest asset in millions of years of evolution, can turn against us so. To see what forces to the surface the obsessive Mr Hyde who lies dormant inside every Dr Jekyll − inside you − and how his betrayal can be stopped. And, as it turns out, it is a terrific story.

Strange thoughts, the seeds of obsession, are everywhere. They scatter across the population. Yet only occasionally do they take root. The first step in our journey to understand obsession is to see how this happens.

TWO

Bad thoughts

‘How easy it would be for me to stick this kitchen knife into him.’ Most people have thoughts like that. They are called intrusive thoughts. Most people don’t talk about their intrusive thoughts.

They don’t talk about them, that is, until psychologists take the trouble to ask. When they do, then survey after survey shows that about nine in ten people admit they experience intrusive thoughts that distress, bewilder, shock and perplex them. Most people have thoughts about driving their car off the road. A third of us say we have thoughts of grabbing money. More than four in ten get an urge to jump from a high place, an impulse so common that it has its own scientific name: the high-place phenomenon. Half of all women and eight out of ten men have thoughts of strangers in the nude, while half of all people cannot help but think of sex acts they consider ‘disgusting’.

Intrusive thoughts are everywhere. But it took until the late 1970s for anyone to notice, when the South African-born psychologist Stanley Rachman and his Sri Lankan colleague Padmal de Silva made a stunning discovery. In trying to understand the nature of obsession, the two realized that many normal people seemed to have the same kinds of strange thoughts and impulses as patients with OCD.

Their obsessive-compulsive patients had urges to insult and physically attack people, but so, it turned out, did their friends. The patients reported impulses to push people under trains and buses, to jump from high places and to deliberately crash their car. So did their colleagues. Both groups had ideas of violence during sex, thoughts they might have committed a crime they heard about on the news and harboured irrational fears that they might have suffered some contamination, such as from radiation or asbestos.

When the psychologists wrote down the weird thoughts harvested from the minds of their OCD patients and those from their ‘normal’ associates on index cards, and mixed the cards up, even their most experienced clinical colleagues could not correctly distinguish which thoughts came from the damaged minds of patients considered mentally ill and which came from the highly respected people they worked and socialized with.

*****

My OCD began with an intrusive thought, a snowflake that fell from the summer sky. ‘Shall we go upstairs?’ the girl had asked me. She was pretty, with long black hair that she had to push back from her eyes as we kissed. The skin on

her arms was smooth and her hands, I remember, seemed so small. She was older than me, though she didn’t think so. Her question: ‘You’re not a first year are you?’ hadn’t left me much room to manoeuvre. I had lied about my university course too. I knew nothing about the politics of the French revolution but it sounded of more appeal to her than chemical engineering. I knew little about chemical engineering either, but then I had only studied it for a couple of months.

I was eighteen and a happy college student. Real life was on hold and time was a string of fun nights and daytime lectures on fluid dynamics and mathematics. I had little idea what a chemical engineer did, but I didn’t care. That was the future. And right now it felt good to think about only the next day.

It was November 1990 in northern England so she wore a baggy white T-shirt with a purple skirt over Doc Marten boots and black leggings. I was pleased with my newlygrown sideburns. I thought she might mention them as we stumbled through the dry sand of our early conversation. By the time we headed from the university campus and into the neighbouring maze of terraced houses I realized that she wasn’t going to. We walked and we talked, about music and our friends. We reached her house and, as she invited me inside and closed the front door behind us, a new world beckoned.

It was one of those frozen Leeds nights that Yorkshire folk are so proud of. The wheezing gas fire in her kitchen generated more light than heat and the cold chased us around the room like the smoke from a wood fire. Upstairs sounded good.

*****

‘Did you have sex with that girl?’ my friend Noel asked the next day.

‘Yes,’ I lied.

‘Did you use a condom?’

‘No.’

‘You could have Aids.’

‘Don’t be daft.’

Had I had sex with that girl? No. Had we used a condom? No. Could I have caught Aids? Don’t be daft. Still, I hadn’t even considered the threat, despite all of the warnings. I should be more careful next time, I thought as I bought Noel a drink that night. I should have been more careful. The same thought, an echo of our conversation – you could have Aids – floated back into my mind from time to time over the next few months, but on each occasion I could muster the mental puff to blow it out. Don’t be daft. Then, one hot night in the August of 1991, I couldn’t.

On holiday from university as I walked back to my parents’ house, with no warning the thought came again. You could have Aids. Only this time I couldn’t move past the idea, or the cramps of panic it caused. ‘Don’t be daft’ suddenly seemed an inadequate response to the scale of the threat, the possible consequences. I could have Aids. And if I did, then I was doomed. My life was over before it had truly begun. Worse, no matter what I did, no matter what anybody said, I could not change it. They could not fix it. I had lost the power over my own fate. As I tried to brush away the thought, the snowflake, it squirmed from my mental grasp and settled. Quickly it was joined by another, then another, then another. The blizzard that followed blew the snow into every corner of my mind, and laid down a blanket that muffled every surface.

I gulped for air when I opened the window in my stuffy bedroom. I heard the scratch on the ceiling of the summer insects when I turned out the light. I saw the red glow of the stereo, still switched on from when I had lay on the same bed that afternoon, which already seemed a lifetime ago. I ripped down the dog-eared posters on the wall in terror. Why me? I was so frightened that the tips of my fingers tingled. I remember I told myself that all would be fine when I woke up the next morning. That was how life was – everyone had night terrors and everyone saw things differently the next day.

The sun rose and the windows and curtains were still wide open. The thought was still there. You could have Aids. I went downstairs to the kitchen and had breakfast in the new world I would inhabit from that day, the first of the rest of my life. I watched my mum and dad gently bicker across the wooden kitchen table, and I thought how sad they would be if I did have Aids. I decided I would not tell them. I went back upstairs to my bedroom and buried my face in my pillow and wept. I could have Aids.

*****

The obsessive thoughts of OCD are different to those that tend to dominate other types of mental anguish. Recurring and distressing thoughts are not always an obsession – at least not in the clinical sense. We can find our minds dominated by exaggerated and distressing thoughts of whether our child will survive and flourish in the world, for instance, or crippling nerves before an exam or driving test, but thoughts like that are in step with the rules and rhythms of our life. We want our child to be happy. We want to pass. We can think and worry non-stop about whether we might lose our job, but only because we know we need the money it brings to feed and clothe our family, which we feel and instinctively sense is the right thing to do.

Thoughts like that are ‘ego-syntonic’. They are in harmony with our drives and motivations. Ego-syntonic thoughts can make us unhappy, but when they do it is their contents and not the thoughts themselves that are the problem. We do not question why we have them. Indeed, sometimes we resent others who do not have ego-syntonic thoughts as acutely as we do. ‘I can’t believe you left this to the last minute.’ ‘It’s only been a month. Of course I still miss him.’

Taken to extremes these types of ego-syntonic thoughts can cause mental disorder, usually anxiety. But at their heart most concerns of anxiety are rational. So, usually, are the dark thoughts of depression: endless rumination on external events, regret of decisions and how life has unfolded. Severe grief, hysteria even, is based on the rational sense of loss.

Unwanted and intrusive thoughts, the raw materials of obsession, are different. They are irrational. They strike a mental discord. They are ‘ego-dystonic’. They clash with how we see ourselves, and how we want others to see us. Just to think these thoughts is enough to make us question who we are. We are not dishonest, yet we could snatch the money from that open till so easily. We do not want to be the dreadful person who could think such terrible and ridiculous things. But most people are.

Winston Churchill, a one-time First Lord of the Admiralty, didn’t like to travel by ship because of the egodystonic urge he had to jump into the water. Churchill was a well-known depressive but these, and similar thoughts he had of jumping in front of trains (he liked to stand with a pillar between himself and the edge of the platform) do not appear to have been genuinely suicidal impulses. Talking once of how he hated to sleep in a bedroom with access to a balcony from which he felt the urge to jump, he told his doctor Charles Moran:

I don’t want to go out of the world at all in such moments. I’ve no desire to quit this world, but thoughts, desperate thoughts, come into my head.

As Churchill observed, to have intrusive thoughts is not a sign that someone wants to act on them. A disturbing thought of sex with a child does not make someone a paedophile, just as an unwanted urge to hit someone with a hammer does not make someone a thug or a murderer. In fact the opposite is true. To consider such a thought or urge unwanted, disturbing and unwelcome – and so intrusive – is usually enough to show it is ego-dystonic and so contrary to someone’s normal personality and actions.

Where do these bizarre thoughts come from? The simple, if unsatisfying, answer is that we don’t know for sure. The theory used by psychologists who study OCD is that our brains have something they call a cognitive ‘idea generator’. On most other occasions, this generator helps us to solve problems.

To consider all possible solutions, it’s important for the mind to generate novel ideas and not immediately censor them. It’s a similar principle to a corporate brainstorm exercise and how every idea to boost sales or attract customers – however stupid – gets written on its own sticky note and given a nod of approval from an overenthusiastic manager. The cognitive idea generator does not have to anchor its responses to reality. Intrusive thoughts are what happens when the mind says ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but’.

Not all unasked-for thoughts are unwanted or unpleasant, far from it. Mozart revelled in musical thoughts he did not command. Beethoven said something similar:

You will ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot say with certainty. They come unbidden, indirectly, directly. I could grasp them with my hands; in the midst of nature, in the woods, on walks, in the silence of the night, in the early morning, inspired by moods that translate themselves into words for the poet and into tones for me, that sound, surge, roar, until at last they stand before me as notes.

Random inspirations of musical genius are all very well, if you’re fortunate enough to have them. But the thoughts most likely to make the rest of us sit up and take notice are odd and unpleasant. Those are also the ones that tend to stick around. Nobody gets obsessed by thoughts that they will be too nice to people, or by urges to give all their money away to a tramp. People do not complain to psychologists of intrusive thoughts of pushing someone with the build of a heavyweight boxer under a subway train. Intrusive thoughts bother us because the usual imagined victims are the small and the weak, the puny and the vulnerable; the child and the little old lady. It’s what psychologists label the Arnold Schwarzenegger effect.

This might make sense, given the theory that a mental idea generator helps us to navigate through life. We may consider it uncivilized, but there are some situations where a natural and useful reaction when one sees a stranger would indeed be to beat them over the head. The smaller the stranger is than you, and so the lower the chance that they can hurt you, the more attractive that option becomes.

According to the theory, sometimes an external cue – the rattle of a train or a dirty floor – can kick the idea generator into action, and make it churn out intrusive thoughts. At other times the trigger is internal – the result of stress or a low mood or a subconscious emotional shift, or the residue of an incomplete memory. In this case, the intrusions appear almost at random.

It’s hard to test these ideas, so there is no experimental evidence to support them. All we know for sure is that intrusive thoughts pop up more in certain circumstances than others, under stress for instance, and that when they do appear, how we react is critical. A natural reaction, especially if the thoughts will not recede by themselves, is to try to force them to go away, to squash the idea, to deliberately shove the unpleasant notion behind the mental furniture or under the rug. That’s a bad idea. That’s when the problems can begin.

*****

Leo Tolstoy knew well the mind’s inability to repel unwanted thoughts. When he was a child, the Russian novelist would play a game with his siblings. To join a secret club called the Ant Brothers, whose members would discover wonderful things, they had only to stand in one corner of a room and try to not think of a polar bear. As hard as they tried, Tolstoy and the others could not manage it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a contemporary of Tolstoy, knew of the bear conundrum too. In his 1863 book Winter Notes on Summer Impressions he wrote: ‘Try and set yourself the task not to think of a white bear, and the cursed thing comes to mind every minute.’ A century later, that Dostoyevsky quote appeared in an article in the US magazine Playboy, where it was read by a university psychology student called Daniel Wegner.

Wegner, who died of motor neurone disease in July 2013 just as I was finishing this book, rose to run the Mental Control Laboratory at Harvard University, but he will always be remembered as the white bear guy. His work with the bears can explain why, even though we see a hole in the road ahead, we steer our bike right into it. It shows why forbidden love offers the most thrills. It can reveal why footballers, desperate not to hit penalty kicks straight at the goalkeeper, go ahead and do just that. In 2009, he wrote an article for the prestigious journal Science titled ‘How to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion’. Most of all, Wegner’s research shows why unwanted intrusive thoughts can hang around; why some people find them so difficult to brush off. It shows how we can turn them into obsessions.

In the 1980s at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, just a quick gallop from the Alamo and one of the last places on Earth that anyone would associate with a polar bear, Wegner asked some of his students to repeat the Tolstoy trial under scientific conditions. He asked them to try to not think of a white bear.

Students told not to think of the bears found it difficult. And students told to do the opposite and to encourage thoughts of white bears, of course, thought of more. (Wegner kept track by asking them to ring a bell.) Most surprising was what happened next, when Wegner reversed the tasks so those students previously told to think of the bears were now asked not to, and vice versa. Those students who had originally tried to keep away the white bears now found their minds flooded with them – more so than the students instructed to think about them originally.

It’s an experiment that has been repeated many times since with similar results. It is hard, if not impossible, to suppress unwanted thoughts. And to try leads to an increase in the thoughts later on, after someone has stopped attempting to suppress them. The latter effect appears in psychology textbooks as the rebound effect of thought suppression. Most psychologists call it the white bear effect try to make an unwanted thought go away and it will bounce back, harder and stronger than before.

Anyone who, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, can resist everything except temptation will recognize just how hard thought suppression is; everyone who has tried to give up cigarettes, or to stick to a calorie-controlled diet. That feeling, the urge and craving, is the sound of the white bear as it paws at the door.

This ironic effect – that a suppressed thought comes back stronger – could underpin a range of unusual human behaviours. It could explain, for instance, why those smokers who are the most motivated to quit also seem to find it the hardest to give up. The brain could interpret intrusive thoughts about a substance as a craving for it. The more smokers try to push away the thoughts of a cigarette, the more they amplify their craving. Studies show those people who had tried and failed to quit cigarettes are indeed more likely to suppress thoughts. A similar effect has been seen in obese people who overeat: they are more likely to suppress thoughts about chocolate and chips, and so increase the craving for them. Suppressing a thought before sleep can even make it resurface in a dream.

What’s going on? According to theories of how the mind works, the white bear effect is down to two mental processes. First, people who try not to think of the white bear must choose to think of something else, and so they introduce and employ a conscious distraction; thinking about what they had for breakfast, for instance. But before we can introduce a distraction, we must know there is a target to distract ourselves from. So, before we can suppress a thought, we must scan our conscious mind to see if it is there. And to do this, we must think of what we want to look for – the white bear – which is the target that we don’t want to think of.

Second, a separate process begins to make sure that the target, the unwanted thought of a white bear, is not present. While this second, monitoring, task is automatic, an unconscious routine that takes little work, the same is not true for the distraction, the thought suppression. That takes real effort, and so cannot last. If the monitoring process lingers after the distraction process has ended, and psychologists think it does, then our minds will continue to search for it. And this means we will find the unwanted thought more frequently than if we had never tried to suppress it in the first place.

That’s not to say that intrusive thoughts can’t be banished, at least in the short term. Distraction – to keep the mind busy – is a pretty effective way to do that. But it’s difficult to keep up for too long. Markus Wasmeier could manage it for barely three minutes – just long enough for the German skier to write his name into the record books.

*****

Stood at the top of a mountain in the early 1990s, Wasmeier’s teammate Hansjorg Tauscher was given the strangest piece of advice of his career. He was fast, no doubt about that he had astonished the winter-sports world when he tamed the fearsome downhill run at Beaver Creek in Colorado to win the 1989 world championships – but his coach had noticed a possible flaw. ‘You think too much.’ Tauscher was quick in the turns, but he stiffened on the fast glide sections that linked them together. And while the groomed icy runs that Alpine racers hurtle down at speeds near 90mph may look smooth, up close they are a strength-sapping series of bumps and lumps.

As they crouch and let gravity propel them down the mountain the mind of an Alpine skier in a glide can start to wander. Most do not wander too far. They start to think about how they could go even faster and as they do so they usually try too hard to control the actions of their feet and legs. The result: they tighten, hit the bumps harder and drag themselves that crucial fraction of a second down the leader board.

Juergen Beckmann, the coach, thought he had the solution. A former downhill racer himself, until a high speed crash almost broke his neck, Beckmann knew the mental problems of the glide well. Watching Tauscher practise, he decided to try an unorthodox control technique that he had picked up from research carried out in the 1960s on short-term memory. To keep the thoughts from his idle mind, Beckmann said that day, Tauscher should count backwards. When he started to glide, he should start at 999 and descend in threes. His mind and his thoughts occupied, the theory went, his legs would be more flexible and his run faster. Tauscher was sceptical, but he gave it a go. He disappeared down the mountain, mumbling under his breath ‘999, 996, 993 . . .’

Today, Beckmann works as a sports psychologist at the Technical University of Munich. His research to help athletes perform under pressure is world famous. But it was his work with the German Alpine ski team from 1991 to 1994 that arguably brought the greatest success. As Tauscher started to ski and count backwards, his times improved. Pretty soon, the former world champion was convinced, and Beckmann, emboldened with his apparent success, shared the secret with the rest of the team.

That was when Beckmann began to work closely with Wasmeier, another former world champion, this time of the giant slalom event back in 1985. The skier was widely considered past his best and even Beckmann’s mother said her son’s work with him was a waste of time. Yet, at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, Markus Wasmeier won two gold medals for Germany – in the giant slalom and the super-giant slalom. Against all expectations, he earned the unlikely title of the greatest German skier of all time and was named the country’s sportsman of the year. He then retired, to spend more time with his thoughts.

Beckmann’s backwards count was a form of ritual, which is one way to keep unwanted thoughts from the mind. Rituals are common, and not only among skiers. Just as most people have intrusive thoughts, so too about half of the people in the general population surveyed by psychologists will admit they perform odd and meaningless rituals.

Some check the cooker is switched off when they know already that it is. They might give in to urges to tap a wall or count silently, or, if they touch somebody on the left shoulder, feel the need to touch them also on the right. These are not superstitions, which are typically a response to an external cue, such as a salute to a magpie. They are compulsions – an irresistible internal urge to act in a way that is irrational. People don’t tend to talk about their compulsions either.

Most people seem able to cope with their day-to-day rituals and compulsions – or at least they do not seek medical help for them. But, like obsessions, for some people their compulsions can cause real difficulties. These problems, and the subsequent calls for help, usually come when obsessions and compulsions start to work in tandem. The combination can produce OCD. Put simply, most people with OCD develop their compulsions as a way to make their intrusive thoughts go away.

The most obvious way to employ a compulsion to drive away an intrusive thought is to use it to answer a question. If the thought that comes to your mind time and time again is about whether you locked the back door or not, then a compulsive and reassuring check on the door should settle the matter. More indirectly, some people use compulsions as a way to stop the thoughts coming in the first place. A 14-year-old girl with obsessive intrusive thoughts that worms would enter her body, for example, avoided the threat by refusing to open her mouth to speak for ten months.

Sometimes the nature of the compulsions seems to bear no relation to the subject of the obsessions at all. People with OCD can be compelled to tap surfaces or count or say secret words to themselves to ‘undo’ the imagined consequences of an intrusive thought, for example that their best friend will die. That might sound unhelpful, but then does counting backwards from 999 make someone a technically better skier?

Compulsions can make obsessive thoughts go away, but only for a short while. One of the many cruel ironies of OCD is that the compulsions, the weapon that obsessed people reach for, make the situation worse. Compulsions act in the same way as thought suppression. An intrusive thought silenced with a compulsive act comes back. It comes back hard.

Mental health professionals refer to OCD as a secret disease and a silent epidemic. The number of people who report obsessions and compulsions to doctors is routinely much lower than the studies of their prevalence would suggest. A lot of people with OCD choose to suffer in silence. Their thoughts are their dirty little secret. They believe they are freaks, and their silence has allowed compulsive actions to come to define their condition.


Excerpted from The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam. Copyright © 2014 by David Adam.
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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Lying Down Room by Anna Jaquiery – Extract

The Lying Down Room

Prologue

For a long time, he watches the people in the queue. It’s remarkable how patient these tourists are. It’s 38 degrees Celsius and there’s a bedraggled air about the line leading into the Pop Art exhibition here at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Yet they seem happy enough to wait. In the meantime, they’re making friends and swapping tips. Last night we had a steak-frites at the Assiette au Boeuf, have you heard of it? Best steak-frites I’ve ever had and the Béarnaise was heaven. I know a small place off the Place du Marais, you’d never guess it was there, it was just us and the locals. Forget about the Champs-Elysées, no one in their right mind goes there any more except the nouveaux-riches. Everyone likes to think they’ve made a discovery when it’s generally the case they’re the last to find out.

A shuffle of feet and the column lumbers half a step forward. It amazes him that so many will go out of their way to see this, will line up in a heatwave for the opportunity to gaze at a giant tube of toothpaste or a reproduction of a tin of tomato soup. If this is art then he obviously knows nothing about it. Art, he believes, should have an illuminating effect, should permeate the soul.

He has a headache and he’s dizzy from standing in the stifling heat for so long and from the buzz of conversation coming from the queue. It’s a wonder no one’s fainted or had a heart attack, or just walked away. A quick look at his watch tells him he’s been here twenty minutes already. How much longer should he wait? His coffee’s cold but he sips at it till the grainy residue at the bottom of his Styrofoam cup spills onto his tongue. A bead of sweat rolls down his eyelid and he blinks.

He’s never liked the industrial style of the Pompidou Centre with its utility pipes and exposed ducts on the outside of the building. To him it’s like a carcass, the worthless remains of a structure that never quite came to life. It stands there with its innards exposed, stripped of all mystery. Down on the square the jugglers and mime artists and musicians are competing for attention. A woman is singing ‘La Vie en Rose’ and playing the accordion and he thinks about the tourists who will take this moment home as though it’s genuine and says something about this city.

But at least the visitors are courteous. Paris is nearly civilized in August, with the Parisians gone. The tourists are harmless, with their shiny new sneakers and eager faces, taking snapshots of everything. Every other month of the year he has to contend with his hard-nosed, pushy compatriots here. It takes a great deal out of him to ignore them and focus on the exhibitions – this year there have been such treasures, particularly at the Louvre and Orsay.

His headache is under control still, but there’s the dizziness and he thinks he had better eat soon, before nausea sets in. Something light, maybe a salade de chèvre. At the Café des Halles they make the goat-cheese salad just the way he likes it. He should go there now, before it gets too crowded.

He looks at his watch one more time, just to confirm that it’s time to give up and leave, but then he sees the boy out of the corner of his eye, heading towards him with his left foot trailing slightly. If you didn’t know, you’d mistake his lopsided gait for an adolescent’s exaggerated nonchalance. He wears his backpack over one shoulder and his grey cap turned back to front. His clothes hang too loosely on him. He is trying hard to look cool, and at the same time holding back a smile.

To the man, the boy seems breakable, like his skinny, loose-jointed limbs might easily snap.

When he reaches him, his face shiny with sweat, the boy raises both hands in the air, as if to say his lateness is not his fault but due to circumstances beyond his control. As usual, he seems oblivious to the fact that there are other people around and the world contains a great deal more than just the two of them. He tugs at the man’s sleeve and rubs his stomach. I’m starving. Maybe it has something to do with his age: the boy is always famished.

The man nods. ‘Come on. Let’s get some lunch.’ He takes one last look at the queue which has just inched forward again, and turns towards the escalator. He throws his coffee cup into a bin.

He watches the boy step down the escalator, in his oversized clothing. It’s almost as though he is absent, beneath his clothes. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist.

One

Commandant Serge Morel finished his coffee and tossed the cup into a bin before crossing the street and entering the nineteenth-century stone building on Rue de l’Eglise. He looked at his watch: 9.16 a.m. He’d driven straight here after getting the call, without stopping at home.

He looked at the sky. Another muggy and uncomfortable day to look forward to. He could have done with a cold shower and a change of clothes.

In the red-carpeted lobby he debated whether to take the lift but one look at the tiny old-fashioned cage with its iron gate was enough to change his mind. Besides, his doctor would probably tell him that taking the stairs was a smart option. What had the GP said? A man in his forties is at risk of, well, just about everything.

He walked up to the fourth floor and waved his badge at the police officer standing outside the door of the dead woman’s apartment. The man stepped aside and Morel found himself in a living room so cluttered it looked like a furniture auction house before the bidding starts. As he entered the room he felt the tension crackle in the air like high-voltage power lines in damp weather. A buzzing of anxiety beneath the calm and measured movements of the experienced people gathered in the apartment, most of whom he knew. The tension was always there. The first stage of the investigation was its most crucial: no one wanted to make a mistake or miss anything.

Considering the lack of space it was a wonder so many people were able to move around at all without climbing over each other. Morel counted eight in this room alone. One of them was his boss, Commissaire Olivier Perrin. The minute he spotted Morel he hurried up to him on short, bandy legs.

‘What took you so long? Don’t you live just down the road?’

Morel looked at Perrin and marvelled for the hundredth time at how closely his boss resembled a bulldog. The same muscular build and permanent scowl. The same hanging jowls. ‘I came as soon as I got the call,’ he said. No point going into details.

Still, he wished he’d arrived sooner. He felt like the latecomer at a party. Two of Morel’s team members, Jean Char and Marco Lancel, wearing protective gear on their heads, hands and feet, were talking to one of the technicians. There were only two men Morel didn’t recognize. Probably the local, Neuilly boys who had initially been called in. In the hallway two women waited on chairs to be interviewed. One of them was sobbing, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. ‘Where have you been? Are you ready to take a look at the body?’ Lila Markov, the youngest member of Morel’s team, was standing next to him with her hands on her hips.

‘In a minute.’ He took a quick look at Lila. Dressed in jeans, a V-necked white T-shirt and black Doc Martens, she had that look of intense concentration on her face which he knew well. Her hair was tied into a ponytail and she looked strong and fit. There was nothing soft and yielding about Lila Markov.

The police photographer emerged from what Morel guessed was the victim’s bedroom.

‘Morel,’ he said by way of greeting. ‘I’ve got all the shots I need for now. But when you’re ready I’d like to get the rest of her body. Didn’t want to pull the sheet back till you’d seen her.’

‘I’ll be right there,’ Morel said.

As he surveyed the living room one last time, Lila waited patiently. She was used to the way he did things.

Every available surface was covered in ornaments. One was a bronze owl. Morel gazed at it, momentarily distracted by its glistening feathers. The bronzework was delicate, the feathers detailed with great precision.

His eyes shifted across all the other knick-knacks on display. So much clutter spoke of an empty life. The room looked out on to a street lined with chestnut trees that looked careworn from the relentless heat of these past weeks. In the apartment too it was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. Morel crossed over to the window and slid the balcony door open. He took several deep breaths before sliding it shut again. In the background the woman’s sobs went on, quiet and insistent.

‘That’s the cleaning lady,’ Lila said. ‘She found the body. The victim’s name is Isabelle Dufour.’

Morel nodded. ‘Anything else you want to tell me before I take a look?’ he asked.

‘I’d rather not spoil the surprise.’

*****

It took Morel several seconds to understand what he was looking at.

The old woman’s face was grotesque. The closed lids caked in blue eye shadow. Her lipstick overlapped the shape of her lips, making them look like they’d been surgically enhanced.

Her cheeks wore bright circles of pink and the foundation across her face was thickly applied, spread unevenly across the wrinkly, parchment-like skin.

To top it all off, she wore a wig. The hair down to her shoulders, curly and bright red.

Morel was reminded of a couple of the regular ‘girls’ on Place Blanche who had long since passed the age of retirement but seemed to think that with extra layers of make-up they might still score. And it was true there were men who would make do with such ghoulishness.

The make-up was in stark contrast to everything else. The dead woman wore a virginal cream-coloured nightgown tied at the neck with a bow. She lay on a plumped-up pillow with perfectly white sheets stretched tightly over her thin body.

Leaving aside the face painting, if it had been a wake Isabelle Dufour couldn’t have been better prepared.

Morel looked at her and felt the familiar sense of unease that always accompanied this initial violation of a victim’s private world. The first thing the dead gave up was their intimacy.

‘Not what you’d call a typical crime scene, is it?’ Lila said. One of the two police officers who’d called in the murder came into the room. Morel turned to him. He guessed that the man was in his early thirties. His black hair was cropped military-style and his eyes were the molten colour of maple syrup.

‘Akil Abdelkader,’ the man said and Morel nodded. There seemed little point in shaking hands when they were both wearing gloves.

‘What alerted you?’ Morel asked.

‘It didn’t feel right. First the make-up on her face – that lady who cleans for her, the one who found her like this, said she never wore any make-up – and then the sheets,’ Abdelkader said, pointing to the bed. ‘They are too tight. No one can go to sleep like that, right? Even to tuck yourself in that tightly isn’t possible. Especially with your arms underneath the covers. So I started thinking, someone put her here like this, someone not quite right in the head maybe. Was I wrong to call it in?’

Morel pulled the sheet back. Both the victim’s arms lay straight down her sides. In her right hand, she held a wooden cross, with four blue stones embedded one at the end of each arm. There were no visible signs of injury. But the scene was all wrong. The woman’s ramrod posture, the make-up, the fact that someone – who? – had tucked her in that way. Abdelkader had made a good call.

‘You did the right thing,’ Morel told him, and he saw the other man visibly relax.

The photographer had returned to the room and moved in to take more shots. While he clicked away, Morel looked at Madame Dufour’s hands and face for anything that might reveal something about how she’d died.

Next he checked the bedside table. It held a lamp, a novel and a stack of religious pamphlets. At first glance they looked like the sort of thing you found in your mail box or people handed out to you on the street. There were three of them, all identical. Nothing in the drawer except a pair of reading glasses and a packet of tissues.

Morel pulled the sheet back over the victim. Even someone with more experience than Abdelkader might have been forgiven for thinking she had died of natural causes. Wearing too much make-up, admittedly. But still. Morel made a mental note to remember the officer’s name.

*****

‘So? Any ideas? I’m hoping the answer is yes. The last thing we need is to give the press another excuse to bang on about soaring crime rates. They’re supposed to be going down, remember? If this government is telling the public that we’re getting tougher on crime, then we’d damned well better be getting tougher. And getting results.’

Morel waited. There was no point in responding, he’d heard it all from Perrin before. The pressure he was under because of the results culture brought in by Sarkozy.

‘Numbers. That’s all that matters to them,’ he said now, for the hundredth time.

He sighed meaningfully and looked at Morel. ‘So what have we got here?’

‘We’ll need to wait for the results of the autopsy before we jump to conclusions,’ Morel said mildly. Perrin eyed him with suspicion.

‘I need to know today,’ he said, articulating the last word as though Morel might have trouble understanding it. ‘I need to know what happened to her and what leads we’ve got. I’ll expect to hear from you before I head home tonight, and I’m leaving early to get changed for dinner.’

‘I understand,’ Morel said.

Perrin stared at Morel as if he didn’t know what to make of him. He started to say something else but just then he caught sight of the deputy public prosecutor entering the room and, without another word or even a look in Morel’s direction, he sidled up to the woman with his arms outstretched, all smiles.

*****

Morel had been dozing happily in Solange’s arms when the call had come through at 8.34. Knowing he was running late but telling himself he deserved a break. Over the past six months Morel’s team had closed more cases than any other team at the Criminal Brigade. Even Perrin had been forced to acknowledge their performance.

‘The cleaning lady has been working for our victim for sixteen years,’ Lila explained. ‘She let herself in with her own set of keys. Looked for her employer and thought that maybe she was sleeping in, though she was an early riser. Then realized something was wrong. She ran out and alerted the concierge.’

Morel listened and looked over at the two women sitting in the hallway. The thin-lipped concierge and the cleaning lady made an unlikely pair. He had a feeling, looking at the former with her beady blue eyes and tight curls, that she would not typically show such warmth to the stout woman who sat by her side wearing a headscarf and clutching a shopping bag. But clearly this was an event that superseded any perceived issues of class and sophistication.

The two Neuilly flics had done a good job sending nosy neighbours away, Morel thought. Aside from a change of menu at their local bistro, this was probably the biggest thing that had happened to most of the tenants in years.

‘That Abdelkader was the one who decided to escalate this,’ Lila said.

‘Yes, smart guy,’ Morel said. ‘Speaking of which . . .’

Abdelkader was making his way over to them.

‘There is something you need to know,’ he said.

‘What’s that?’ Morel said.

‘The victim. It turns out one of my colleagues took a call from her a week ago. She wanted to make a complaint.’

‘About what?’

‘About two guys who had knocked on her door. Evangelists. Jehovah’s Witnesses or something, I can’t remember.’

Morel thought of the pamphlets on Dufour’s side table. ‘What was the big deal?’

‘She was freaking out because they had come into the building and all the way to her front door. Normally the concierge keeps a close eye on who comes and goes.’

‘What happened to the complaint?’

‘We got her to come in and took her testimony. That was about it. We never followed up on it.’

He looked unhappy.

‘Well, that sounds right,’ Morel said. ‘There wasn’t anything else you could have done. What’s bugging you?’

‘Nothing. Just that one minute two guys turn up at her door and she seems really freaked out. And the next she’s been killed in this weird way.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve seen a few dead people since I took this job but nothing like this.’

‘It’s certainly an unusual crime scene. I’ll give you that,’ Morel said. ‘We’ll have to see what the forensic pathologist has to say.’

‘Let me know if I can help.’

Morel noted the restraint in the other policeman’s tone. Abdelkader looked like a man who kept his emotions to himself but Morel guessed how much he wanted to be a part of the investigation. His hunger was evident.

Morel hadn’t been that different himself, back then. And he was impressed by the younger man’s professionalism.

‘Don’t worry. I will.’

*****

After sending Jean and Marco to interview the other tenants in the building, Morel took Lila with him and instructed one of the two women who had been sitting in the hallway for the past half hour to follow him to the ground floor.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting. Would you mind coming downstairs with us? We’ll use your living room, if that isn’t too much trouble,’ Morel told the concierge.

‘Not at all,’ she said, clearly flustered. ‘If you could just give me a tiny minute to make sure the place isn’t a complete mess.’

Once they reached the ground floor, she trotted ahead of them to her apartment while they followed at a slower pace. Through the half-open door they heard a bout of furious whispering before she reappeared.

‘Please come in.’

The room they found themselves in was fussy and feminine. Morel guessed that the concierge, who’d introduced herself as Rose Jardin, was solely responsible for the interior decoration. It certainly seemed to have little to do with the man who sat as well he could on the pale leather sofa, between two rows of symmetrically arranged heart-shaped cushions. He wore a pair of blue overalls over a short-sleeved shirt and hardly looked away from the TV screen when they entered the room.

‘Georges,’ she hissed at him and turned to Morel with an apologetic smile. ‘My husband has been working on the pipes all morning. We’ve had some plumbing issues. Sorry. Would you care to sit down?’

‘Thank you. Commandant Serge Morel.’ He extended a hand to Rose’s husband.

Reluctantly, the man turned the television off and turned to the two officers. ‘Georges Jardin. So she’s dead, is she? Madame Dufour?’

‘I’m afraid so.’

‘Murdered.’

‘We’re investigating what happened,’ Morel said while Lila fidgeted on the sofa, trying to make a space where she could sit comfortably. In the end she picked up two of the cushions and shoved them aside. Morel noticed how the concierge flinched. He saw that Lila had noticed too.

‘We hope you won’t mind if we ask a few questions.’ ‘Not at all.’

‘Though I’m not sure how we can help,’ the husband said. ‘You might not be much help,’ the concierge said. Then, turning to Morel, ‘Georges wouldn’t notice if someone took an axe to me right in front of his nose. But happily, I’m more observant. No one gets past me in this building.’ ‘Did Isabelle Dufour have many visitors?’

‘No. The only people I ever saw were her son Jacques – and even that very rarely – and her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Mostly her daughter-in-law came with just the younger of her two children.’

‘Anyone else?’

‘No.’

‘How often did her son visit?’

‘In the eight years I’ve been here I’ve probably seen him four times. That’s how rarely he comes. The last time was just last week, in fact. He stayed for about an hour. He probably had lunch with his mother. It was around midday.’

‘Did he visit with his wife and children?’ Rose shook her head.

‘No. Always alone. The wife came separately. About once a month, I saw her and the little boy. They usually spend some time in the afternoons.’

‘What about the cleaning lady? How often does she come?’

‘Maria? She cleans at Madame Dufour’s three times a week. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Always comes in at 8 a.m. and leaves at 12 p.m.’

‘We’ve been told there might have been a couple of people, a man and a boy, distributing religious pamphlets.’

‘I’ve never seen anyone like that.’

‘Yet Isabelle Dufour filed a complaint with the police about them.’

‘When?’

‘A week or so ago.’ Rose looked put out.

‘Well, I never saw anyone like that.’ She looked at Morel. ‘I wish she had mentioned it. After all, I am responsible for this building.’

‘Yes, well, I’m sure she didn’t want to trouble you.’

The entire time Rose’s husband hadn’t said a word. Now Morel turned to him.

‘Monsieur Jardin, did you ever see any visitors that fit that description?’

‘No.’ He hesitated and looked at his wife. ‘But we aren’t always aware of who comes and goes. There are times when Rose and I are having our lunch. And often we like to take a quick nap in the afternoons.’ He blushed then, and Morel forced himself not to smile.

But he couldn’t resist looking at Rose Jardin. Her face had turned bright red and she was staring carefully at the ground.

‘Well, thank you for all your help,’ Morel said, standing up. ‘Now if you don’t mind I’ll call Maria in. If there is a room where we could speak to her . . .’

‘Of course,’ Rose Jardin said. ‘You can use this room. My husband and I will leave you to it.’ She still wouldn’t meet Morel’s eye.

Morel stepped out of the flat and gave Jean a call. ‘Can you get the cleaning lady to come down now?’ he asked.

Morel and Lila waited for Maria in the lobby.

‘I bet Georges is in for a telling-off,’ Morel said.

‘I don’t know about that. I think she’ll be too busy rearranging the cushions,’ Lila said. ‘Did you see her face when I moved a couple of them? I wonder if she uses a ruler or if she relies on instinct?’

*****

The interview with the cleaning lady revealed very little. ‘It was horrible, to see her like that,’ Maria said. She was clearly distressed about Dufour’s death.

‘Any idea who could have done this?’ he asked.

She shivered. ‘I have no idea. A monster! It must be someone who is crazy.’

‘What sort of employer was Madame Dufour?’ he asked. ‘Very good.’ Maria shook her head. ‘I have a son, Alfonso, and Madame Dufour always remembers his birthday. She always gives him something special.’ She seemed to realize she was using the wrong tense and paused, unsure of what to say next.

‘She was thoughtful,’ Lila prompted her. ‘Sounds like she was fond of you.’

‘I was fond of her, too,’ Maria said, and she started crying all over again. ‘She helped us with the plane tickets when we went home to Portugal every summer. This year we went back for four weeks. I brought her a gift.’

‘Did anyone visit her?’ Lila asked.

Maria wiped the tears from her face. ‘Her daughter-in-law and grandson. Once or twice I saw Madame Dufour’s son.’

‘Anyone else?’

‘No. She sometimes met a friend for lunch but they never came here.’

Morel showed Maria the pamphlets he’d placed in a sealed bag.

‘Do you know anything about these?’

Maria shook her head. ‘No. They have been lying on Madame Dufour’s bedside table for a little while, maybe the past week or so. I don’t move anything, except to clean underneath, of course.’

‘Was she a religious woman?’

‘I don’t think so. But we never talked about it.’

‘How would you describe her, generally?’

Maria thought. ‘I think she was a nice lady who was quite lonely. She was usually alone.’

‘Did that make her unhappy?’

Maria looked at them with troubled eyes. ‘I don’t know. She was a very quiet person. We talked mostly about practical things. What cleaning products she needed, whether we should think about replacing the shower curtain, that sort of thing.’

‘But you worked for her for sixteen years,’ Lila said. ‘Surely you had some idea of the sort of person she was?’

Maria shook her head. ‘I don’t know what sort of person she was. We weren’t friends. I cleaned her house and she was kind to me. But she wasn’t looking for someone to talk to.’

*****

It was well past 2 p.m. when Morel and the three members of his team left the apartment and headed back to Quai des Orfèvres. They stopped on the way for takeaway sandwiches and coffees.

While he and Jean waited in the car for Marco and Lila to return with the food, Morel thought about Isabelle Dufour’s painted face and the clothes she’d been dressed in. A strange, ritualistic murder. There was no doubt that someone had taken their time with her. There had been nothing impulsive about it.

He wondered what sort of person they were looking for.

Two

Morel balanced his weight carefully on the swivel chair and turned to face his visitor. Six months he’d been waiting for a new seat. This one concertinaed and slumped without warning, leaving him at times with his knees up to his chest. Looking at his visitor, Morel hoped the chair would behave itself, just this once.

Through the open window directly behind him, he could hear the morning traffic in the distance, commuters making their sluggish way along the quays. Drivers slammed their horns to let off steam.

It was already warm. He wished he’d worn a short-sleeved shirt. He wished he could have a cigarette, but Perrin had caught him once puffing away and blowing the smoke out his window. All of a sudden Morel was fifteen again, trying to hide his humiliation while his father delivered a lecture on the debilitating effect of nicotine on the brain.

He would rather not give Perrin another opportunity to dress him down. Still, he would have killed for a smoke. The day had not started well. His father had thrown a tantrum at the breakfast table after finding butter in the strawberry jam. Morel had ended up shouting, then apologizing. I’m a forty-four-year-old man, fighting with my father about the way I like to do things, he thought.

‘Commandant?’

Morel suddenly realized he’d turned away from his visitor and was gazing without seeing at the pattern of leaves against a cobalt sky and the outline of a boat carrying sightseers along the Seine. Another world to the one he’d walked into this morning. Arriving at the inner courtyard of the Judicial Police Headquarters at eight he’d found a team from narcotics pulling a car apart following a tip-off from one of their informants about a sizeable heroin stash.

Morel turned to his visitor and managed to look contrite. ‘I’m sorry.’

The woman sitting across from him couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall but she radiated an intensity that Morel found unsettling. She was the third and last of the women whose testimonies Morel’s team were hearing. Three women who, like Dufour, had called their local police stations to complain of two visitors handing out religious material.

‘Doesn’t that seem strange to you?’ Morel had asked Lila. ‘All four of them, reporting something so innocuous?’

‘Unless our evangelists visited others. For whatever reason, these four found it unsettling enough to call. Others might have had the knock on their door but didn’t think anything of it.’

She had a point. Still, Morel couldn’t figure out why these women had bothered to complain at all, except for the fact that they were elderly and perhaps easily scared.

His visitor certainly didn’t look like the fearful type. But he remembered Isabelle Dufour’s body lying prone under the sheets. He was not giving this woman the attention she deserved, he realized.

‘So where were we?’ he said, feeling abashed.

The old lady shifted in her chair. Her eyes darted across the room as though the walls were made of rubber. She was humming the tune again. He was sure he knew it, but it evaded him no matter how often she did this. How long exactly had the two of them been at it? He didn’t dare look at his watch, not with her sharp eyes observing him.

That tune. What was it exactly? Morel’s father would know. Of course he would. At the thought of his father, Morel’s mind began to wander again. He forced himself to focus. Maybe if it wasn’t so hot, he told himself. It didn’t help that the windows opened only so far and that there was no ventilation. No air-con unit, no fan.

He tugged at his collar. This Wednesday heralded the first heatwave of the year. Belatedly, considering it was the fourth week of August. Half the city’s indigenous population had long since left town, heading south for the congested beaches or for holidays in the country. Morel would have liked to be among them. Right now he’d be grateful for a square foot of sand on the beach in Antibes, to sit among the lobster-coloured people and gaze at the sea.

‘Like this, you see,’ his visitor said, and she started up again. Morel found himself straining forward again, as though the problem were to do with volume rather than her inability to carry a tune.

‘An English piece, perhaps? I seem to remember—’

The old woman shook her head vigorously. She seemed offended.

‘English! Never trust the English,’ she said. Her voice rang like a rusty old bicycle bell.

He ignored the comment, much as he’d ignored her comments at the start of their encounter. He had been making small talk to put her at ease and telling her how much Paris had changed since he was a child, to which she’d replied that it was all due to the Arabs. It was they, Morel learned, who had introduced cockroaches to the capital due to their lack of hygiene. Morel could have told her that French history was riddled with unhygienic practices – all authentically local. For centuries this had been a country awash with lice, bedbugs, fleas. But he held his tongue.

‘Anyway, it wasn’t just the tune, it was something about his face,’ she continued. Morel leaned closer so that the chair tilted dangerously.

‘What about it?’ he asked.

‘Oh, he had all the airs and graces,’ the woman said. ‘But.’ You could tell she liked to choose how she told a story.

She wouldn’t be rushed.

‘But,’ she continued, pausing for effect – ‘what sort of well-mannered man comes knocking on a stranger’s door at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, handing out business cards? Calling me sister and telling me Jesus is coming. Sister!’ she repeated, with a disgusted air. ‘I told him, I’m not your sister. I’m old enough to be your mother, though, and if the poor woman is still alive I hope to God she doesn’t know how her son is disgracing himself, intruding on people in their homes.’

Now Elisabeth Guillou was waving a pamphlet at him. It was the same one Morel had found in Isabelle Dufour’s bedroom.

‘Can you describe them to me? The ones who knocked on your door and gave you that pamphlet?’ he asked.

His visitor sighed, as though it pained her to have to explain herself.

‘The man was quite ordinary. Pleasant enough, though he didn’t fool me for a second. He was dragging a boy around with him, no doubt to prevent doors being slammed in his face. The boy was mute. Literally. A shameful character,’ she said.

She glared at Morel, but there was a hint of pleasure in the old prune’s eyes. Something merry and unkind. She leaned forward.

‘You know, I was raised as a Christian. We used to recite the Lord’s Prayer twice a day, before breakfast and after dinner. My father would watch me and my sister to make sure we were saying the words, not just pretending. I always knew, well before I could read and write, that it was a load of rubbish.’

She laughed as though something excessively droll had just occurred to her.

‘You know, it delights me to think of all those people living their lives with the conviction they’ll be going somewhere special for eternity once they die. And where are they now? Decomposing, gone, buried underground, reduced to ashes. Just think! How wonderful, how utterly priceless!’

Morel laughed with her. It could do no harm, and might in fact jog her memory further. ‘Is there anything else, Madame Guillou?’

She began whistling again, loudly, startling him. Her thin lips clenched into a tune, a better rendition this time, which Morel found overwhelmingly familiar once he got over his initial surprise. He rolled his chair forward. Thankfully, it didn’t collapse.

‘That’s it?’

‘Yes, that’s the tune.’

‘The one the man was humming? Who came to your house?’ ‘Yes, it is. Do you recognize it?’

‘Indeed, Madame, indeed I do.’ They looked at each other, beaming.

‘Well, you’ve been an immense help, Madame Guillou. I thank you, once again, for taking the trouble to come in.’

‘Are you a believer, Commandant?’ she asked. She was standing up, adjusting the strap of her handbag on her shoulder and holding on tight, as though she expected someone to snatch it from her.

‘Of sorts, Madame, of sorts. But not the peddling kind, if you know what I mean.’

Not so certain now, she hesitated. ‘Yes, yes. Will that be all?’

‘Yes indeed. And I thank you for taking the time to come in. You’ve been a great help.’

‘My pleasure.’ All briskness and efficiency now. ‘Nice to meet you too.’ She looked him up and down, as though she might say something more. But then thought better of it.

He walked her to the top of the stairs, thinking to accompany her to the ground floor, but she waved him away as though guessing his intention.

‘I’m perfectly capable of seeing myself out,’ she said. They shook hands as though they’d just conducted a successful business transaction. ‘Goodbye, then.’

Morel returned to his desk, triumphant. Who would have thought he would recognize the tune? That it would in fact turn out to be one he had grown up with? One his father listened to so often that to Morel it became synonymous with long Sunday afternoons, when, as a child, he waited for something, anything, to happen to relieve the tedium? As he sat down and swivelled the chair to face his computer, he hummed the melody. ‘In Paradisum’, from Fauré’s Requiem. In the end, the old lady had rendered it perfectly.

*****

The morning wore on, sticky and warm. Nothing was resolved. The heat seemed to get on people’s nerves, in and outside the building. Phones were ringing off the hook. In the sixteenth, a man clobbered his wife with a 300-euro lamp she’d just brought home from a boutique on Avenue Molière. Thirty-five years of marriage, and now this lamp he hated, which he took as a personal affront. A homeless man had thrown himself in the Seine naked, to cool down, he said. No one cared to pull him out of the water and so he floated on his back for half an hour, singing, until the police arrived.

The room Morel shared with his team was dingy, but large enough to accommodate three desks. Morel’s desk was separated from the other two by a Song-era Chinese folding screen, a wedding gift from his paternal grandfather ten years ago. Morel’s marriage to Eva had lasted less than two years but he still treasured the screen. He’d moved it to the Quai des Orfèvres the day he was promoted to the position of team leader. His father had thrown a fit.

‘Have you gone mad? Do you know what this thing is worth?’

‘Well, no one’s likely to steal it at headquarters, are they?’ This priceless object had the advantage of providing Morel with some much-needed privacy. People thought twice before disturbing him when he was in his lair out of sight.

‘Real coffee. I hope you’re grateful.’ Jean was standing before him, holding a takeaway cup.

‘Thanks,’ Morel said. ‘How’s it going?’

To Morel’s regret, the older detective was tied up with a warehouse burglary and homicide that had occurred over the weekend. He wouldn’t have much spare time, though Jean was trying his best to be two people at once.

‘It looks pretty straightforward. We’ve got footage showing the guys coming in and leaving shortly after our victim arrived for work. They look like they’re in a real rush. We shouldn’t have too much trouble with this one,’ Jean said.

‘Good. Hopefully we can close it fast. I’d like you on this new case,’ Morel said.

Jean nodded. ‘Did the Guillou woman come in?’ ‘Yes.’

‘And?’

‘She told the same story as Marie Latour and Irina Volkoff, the two you spoke to,’ Morel said.

‘Have you heard back from Martin? About the body, I mean,’ Jean said.

Morel took a sip of his coffee. ‘Not yet. Lila and Marco are at the morgue, they should have some news when they get back.’

Jean sat down and glanced at the line of origami figures on the desk before him. A paper crow was at the head of a marching avian column that included a pelican and a flamingo. Morel had been busy.

‘Where’s Vincent?’ Jean asked.

‘I haven’t heard from him yet,’ Morel said.

The two men exchanged a look. With Vincent’s wife dying of breast cancer, no one wanted to comment on his frequent absences from work.

‘You’re going to have to talk to him,’ Jean said eventually. ‘I know he has to spend a lot of time at home and in the hospital right now but we need that extra pair of hands. So if he’s not going to be fully active anytime soon then we need to get someone in. At least temporarily.’

Morel nodded. ‘I’ll have that conversation eventually,’ he said. ‘But I don’t want to worry him with it right now. I don’t want him thinking he’s being pushed aside. He’s got enough—’

Before he could finish his sentence, he heard Marco and Lila come in.

Morel stood up. ‘Let’s hear whether there’s any news,’ he said.

*****

‘So what has the great Richard Martin got to say?’ Morel asked. He sat on the edge of Lila’s desk, looking at the two younger officers in his team.

Lila frowned. Morel knew she would be foul-tempered for at least the next hour. Richard Martin had that effect on women.

‘Did Martin behave himself?’

‘What do you think?’ Lila said while Marco pulled a face at Morel, a warning not to pursue the subject further.

Morel had known the forensic pathologist for seven years now. The two had stepped into their current roles around the same time. He knew that Martin was as driven as he was and that, like him, he’d worked hard to get to where he was now. But the resemblance ended there. While Morel kept his private life under wraps, Martin had become notorious for his ability to make women squirm. Two of his female colleagues had tried and failed to make sexual harassment cases against him. Another had simply resigned. The fact that Martin was considered by many to be the best in his field had kept him in his position, so far at least.

‘According to our eminently sleazy pathologist,’ Lila began, ‘Isabelle Dufour died sometime between five and six in the morning. She was drowned. Martin couldn’t find any signs of a struggle. She was a frail old woman so perhaps she didn’t get an opportunity to fight her opponent. He could easily have held her underwater till she ran out of breath.’

The room was silent, while everyone considered this.

‘How does he know she drowned?’

‘The size and shape of the lungs,’ Lila said. ‘And crepitus.’ Morel had seen it before. The lungs inflated like water wings; crepitus, evidenced by the crackling sound the lungs made when you squeezed them. It wasn’t conclusive but along with the circumstantial evidence it painted a pretty convincing picture. Dufour’s hair, as well as the bath surface, hadn’t been completely dry.

‘If she drowned accidentally, that means someone else took the time to doll her up and tuck her in,’ Lila said.

‘Any signs of sexual assault?’ ‘None.’

Morel glanced at Marco. He was looking at the floor and Morel found himself growing irritable, as he often did with the young policeman.

‘Anything else, Marco?’ he said.

‘Not really.’

‘Not really or no?’

‘No,’ Marco said. Morel saw him blush and wondered, not for the first time, whether the young man really had it in him to work murder cases. He wasn’t assertive enough. You couldn’t work a crime case the way he did, by being timid and hesitant.

Maybe it wasn’t entirely Marco’s fault. He was a decent person, eager and good-natured. He just didn’t fit in to this team and would be better off in another department.

‘Let’s move on,’ Morel said. ‘But first, I need to catch up with our illustrious chief. Let’s reconvene when I get back.’


Excerpted from The Lying Down Room by Anna Jaquiery. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Jaquiery.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Investigation by Jung-myung Lee – Extract

The Investigation

PROLOGUE

THINGS LONG GONE FLICKER LIKE FIREFLIES

Life may not have a purpose. But death requires clarity – not to prove that death occurred, but for the benefit of those who survive. This lesson, which I learned this past winter, made me who I am now. War had whipped me like a sandstorm. Somehow, even as I was worn down, eroded, I grew up, little by little. One might be congratulated for maturing, for the body becomes stronger and one accumulates experience; but to get here I’d lost so much. I am unable to return to who I’d been before, when I was unaware of the world’s cruelty, the evil among us or the power inherent in a written line.

The war ended on 15 August 1945. The prisoners were freed, but I’m still here. The only thing that’s changed is that now I am behind bars, my brown guard uniform exchanged for this red prisoner’s garb. Dark numbers are printed clearly on my chest: D29745. I don’t entirely understand why I’m here. During the war I was stationed as a soldier-guard at Fukuoka Prison. Now the Americans have classified me as a low-level war criminal. I am incarcerated in the very cell I once patrolled, in this immense prison of tall brick walls, sharp barbed wire, thick bars and the brick rooms that swallowed the lives of thousands.

Pale sunlight falls on the dark wooden floor, which not long ago was soaked with blood and pus. With a finger, I scrawl down some words in the rectangular patch of light, as though I were writing on paper. My muscles are firm, my skin is smooth, my blood is red, but my eyes have seen too much brutality. I’m only twenty.

The American military has charged me with the abuse of prisoners. I suppose it’s a logical accusation; even I wouldn’t say I’m innocent. I’ve abused prisoners, sometimes on purpose, at other times without even realizing it. I’ve yelled at them and beaten them. I have to accept responsibility for that. But I’m guiltier still of something else: the crime of doing nothing. I didn’t prevent the unnecessary deaths of innocent people. I was silent in the face of the insanity. I closed my ears to the screams of the innocent.

The story I’m about to tell isn’t about me; it’s about the war’s destruction of the human race. This story is about both the people who lacked humanity and the purest of men. And it’s about a bright star that crossed our dark universe 10,000 years ago. I don’t really know where this story will start or how it will end, or whether I can even finish it. I will just write it all down. My story is about two people who met at Fukuoka Prison. In my narrow cell I remember their lives behind the tall, firm brick wall, on the sun-soaked yard and under the shadows of the tall poplars. One prisoner and one guard; one poet and one censor.

AS A STRANGER I ARRIVED, AS A STRANGER AGAIN I LEAVE

The bell clanged, ripping through the dawn air. What happened? Had there been a prison break? I sprang up from the hard bed in the guardroom. It was still dark outside. I tightened my boot laces as the lights flickered on in the long corridor.

An urgent voice rang out over the crackling speakers. ‘All guards report to your cells and begin roll call. Report anything unusual immediately. The guard on patrol duty for Ward Three, stand by at the entrance to the main corridor!’ Two guards manned the overnight rounds, which began at exactly 10 p.m. It took an hour and fifty minutes to check each cell on both sides of the long corridor and to inspect the locks. Shift change was at midnight, two and four in the morning. Sugiyama Dozan, with whom I worked, was a veteran over forty years old. When I’d returned to the guardroom after the 2 a.m. rounds, he was perched on the bed, tightening his gaiters. He’d left the room without a word, his club fastened to his hip. As he disappeared into the darkness, his back looked indistinct, ghostly. My eyelids, heavy with fatigue, had tugged me down into the black swamp of sleep – sleep that was now shattered.

I forced my tired eyes open and sprinted down the main corridor leading to the guard offices. Big dogs were barking in the darkness beyond the red-brick walls. The spotlight from the watchtower sliced through the night like a sharp blade. The urgent shouts of the guards outside reached my ears. On either side of the narrow corridor prisoners looked out through the bars of their cells, bleary eyes ripe with annoyance and resentment. The guards threw open the cell doors to conduct the roll call. Voices calling out prisoner numbers and the prisoners’ responses swirled with the alarm. I ran, chased by the thudding of my own boots. I skidded to a stop in the main corridor of Ward Three. What I saw made me want to escape into a dream. It was worse than a nightmare. Reddish-black blood was splattered on the main corridor, making a sunburst pattern. It was still falling from the second-floor railing. The body was hanging naked from a rope wrapped around a crossbeam on the ceiling. His arms were open at his sides and tied to the railing. Blood dripped from the left side of his chest, down his stomach and thigh, and hung for a moment on the tip of his big toe before falling to the ground. His head was bowed. He was staring down at me. Sugiyama Dozan.

Goosebumps pricked my body. Death was something I’d never thought about; it wasn’t a becoming topic for a nineteen-year-old. Although I was in uniform, I was still only a boy. I gagged a few times and wiped my wet eyes. Other guards were milling around in confusion, unable to decide whether to leave the corpse hanging over the main corridor or cut it down. I approached again and shone my torch on his face. His lips had been sealed. Seven neat, delicate stitches led from the lower to the upper lip and back. I forced myself to lock my rattling knees.

Head guard Maeda arrived, and the blood drained from his face. He stuttered an urgent order: ‘Take the body down, cover it and move it to the infirmary!’

Several guards ran up to the second floor to undo the knot and eased the corpse slowly to the ground. Two others brought a stretcher and quickly disappeared with the body. ‘Who’s the alternate patrol?’ Maeda asked, looking around.

I stiffened to attention. ‘Watanabe Yuichi! Patrol on duty.’ Maeda threw me a sharp glance and shouted at me. Overwhelmed by the sour odour of vomit and the bright searchlight slicing the darkness, I couldn’t hear anything other than the siren from the outer watchtower and the barking of the guard dogs.

The guard who had been searching the building entrance ran back in. ‘About half a foot of snow fell overnight, but there isn’t a single footprint anywhere; nobody has entered or left this building.’

That much was obvious. There were no puddles of melted snow or wet footprints around the crime scene. Where did the murderer come from? Where did he go?

A senior guard tapped me on the shoulder. I came to my senses. He relayed Maeda’s order to gather Sugiyama’s belongings and prepare an incident report. I ran up the stairs to the second floor. Flung to the ground next to the railing was his uniform. Sugiyama always had every button fastened. The uniform was his skin; without the uniform he was nothing. Now the arms and legs were inside out, the buttons were missing. I noticed that his uniform top didn’t have any cuts in it. The murderer had taken off his uniform before hanging him. Only then had he driven a long, steel stake into Sugiyama’s heart. His trousers, with worn, baggy knees, had been tossed carelessly aside, but crisp pleats still ran down the middle of each leg. Sugiyama had stitched his pockets closed to ensure that he didn’t slide his hand into them; the neat needlework was the secret to his composed gait.

I reached into the inner pocket of the uniform top and trembled like a boy reaching into a warm bird’s nest. My fingertips touched something like a baby bird’s feather – a piece of coarse paper folded twice over. I unfolded it. The words, nestled together to create small villages, whispered to me:

Good Night

As a stranger I arrived,
As a stranger again I leave.
May was kind to me
With many bunches of flowers.
The girl spoke of love,
Her mother even of marriage,
Now the world is bleak,
The path covered by snow.
I cannot choose the time
Of my departure;
I must find my own way
In this darkness.
With a shadow cast by the moonlight
As my travelling companion
I’ll search for animal tracks
On the white fields.
Why should I linger, waiting
Until I am driven out?
Let stray dogs howl
Outside their master’s house;
Love loves to wander
God has made her so
From one to the other.
Dear love, good night!
I will not disturb you in your dreaming,
It would be a pity to disturb your rest;
You shall not hear my footsteps
Softly, softly shut the door!
On my way out I’ll write
‘Good Night’ on the gate,
So that you may see
That I have thought of you.

Each line exuded grief and despair, and an intense love; each stanza recalled a sad man walking away on a snowcovered night road. I examined the note carefully – the spot of ink that had spread where the pen had stopped, hesitating; the shape of the clumsy, rapid or slow strokes; the small changes of indentation from pen pressing against paper. Did he write this poem or did he simply copy someone else’s? If this hand wasn’t his, whose was it? Did someone plant this note, and why was this poem in Sugiyama’s inner pocket?

*****

Before I speak about Sugiyama Dozan’s death again, I should talk about his life. I had spent three months in Ward Four before being transferred to Ward Three a mere three days prior to his death. I knew next to nothing about him. He didn’t become a ghost in death; to me, he’d been one when he was alive. He would pace the corridor in Ward Three under the incandescent lights, his footsteps measured, holding the register in one hand. When he did so, the prisoners quieted and studied his back from the safety of their cells. His pale skin was almost transparent and his face was as cold as a plaster bust. He never spoke, his mouth like Ali Baba’s cave that had forgotten how to open. Once in a blue moon a flat, hoarse voice would leak out through his dry lips. He didn’t need to yell; he knew how to strike fear into someone with his soft voice. His cleanly shaven chin was dark blue under his crooked nose. The guards gossiped about who could possibly have crushed his nose – a legendary left-handed yakuza, a tall Soviet soldier he’d encountered at Nomonhan, or perhaps shrapnel from a shell that exploded right next to him or the butt of a Soviet Type-99 Arisaka rifle. But nobody knew the truth. His cap settled low on his brow, hiding his eyes. A reddish scar ran down his face to his lips and glistened in the sunlight. Not many people knew where the scar began; it might have stretched past his eye all the way up to his forehead.

Sugiyama was omnipresent. He was where he had to be and he did what he had to do. He was so skilful that it was as if nothing ever happened. Everyone knew his name – guards and prisoners, Japanese and Korean – and feared and scorned it. I don’t mean to repeat tall tales simply to cast him in a more interesting light. But if I had to say anything about him, I think it would be best to start with those stories.

Sugiyama was assigned to Fukuoka Prison in the summer of 1939. The warden had high expectations for the Manchurian Front hero; he hoped the arrival of a proper military mindset would remedy the chaos in the prison. According to hearsay, Sugiyama was a sergeant in the Kwantung Army in Manchuria – the 64 Brigade of the 28th Infantry Regiment. He fought without understanding why, and witnessed his comrades dying. At one point his company was surrounded by the Soviet 9th Mechanized Corps. The Imperial Japanese Army’s Division Headquarters gave orders to each unit to break through the siege and retreat eastwards. Sugiyama lay in ambush all day with thirty men and, when the shelling stopped at night, launched an attack on the Soviet tank division. After two weeks of isolation they managed to break through the siege and retreat. He was practically the sole survivor to emerge from the fire pit that saw the demise of thirty tanks, 180 aeroplanes and 20,000 troops.

Nobody knew if that story was true. All that could be confirmed was that the Kwantung Army’s 28th Infantry Regiment battled with Soviet-Mongolian forces in Nomonhan. Facts stood here and there throughout the story to give plausible support to his heroic exploits. The guards talked about the battle as though they had actually witnessed it. There was a guard who said he had seen seven bullet wounds on Sugiyama’s body. One guard claimed that Sugiyama was completely deaf in his left ear because a bomb had exploded right next to him. Another insisted that there was a fist-sized piece of shrapnel embedded in Sugiyama’s torso. These rumours were laid over his reticence, creating a sheen of truth.

A few guards were actual witnesses to another story. When Sugiyama arrived at the prison, he had a slight limp from a gunshot wound to his right leg. His beard was unkempt and his eyes glinted like those of a wild animal.

He seemed to view this isolated prison as a new battlefield; though there was no enemy, he regarded everyone as the foe. He brandished his club freely, not letting a single action or word by a prisoner go unchecked. He was vicious and crafty. The prisoners feared him and the guards avoided him. Overnight he gained even more notoriety, thanks to the way he addressed a Korean prisoner riot.

Three Korean prisoners had locked themselves in the prison workshop, convinced some student draft-dodgers to join them and gone on a rampage. They took three Japanese prisoners hostage and demanded that the warden grant all the rioters prisoner-of-war status. Although such incidents were to be reported to the Special Higher Police, the warden chose not to; he considered the confines of the red-brick walls to be his territory. Calling the Special Higher Police to the prison would be a humiliation. He opened the armoury and distributed rifles to the guards. That was when Sugiyama stepped up, offering to enter the workshop to subdue the rioters. The warden just stared at him. Sugiyama took off his uniform top and told the warden to storm the doors with armed guards if he didn’t re-emerge in ten minutes. He stepped inside as though he were being sucked in. The doors closed quietly behind him. The warden kept his eyes locked on the clock; the long, thin second hand sliced his heart with fine strokes. Five minutes passed. The guards’ sweaty palms began to slip against their rifles. The warden prepared to enter, bracing himself for the loss of life. At that moment they heard a crash emanating from inside, along with faint screams. The guards pushed through the doors. Sugiyama was standing on a tall worktable with his club by his side. On the floor were men with bleeding heads, torn lips and swelling eyes, squirming like insects.

This story might be an exaggeration, too, but it was true that Sugiyama had gone alone into the rioters’ den, and an undeniable fact that he came out without a scratch. After that incident, he resumed his shadowy existence. He was someone who existed through rumours alone. Only after he died did I explicitly feel his presence. And only then did I realize I really knew nothing about him.

*****

Giant steel doors and a looming brick wall guarded the main entrance to Fukuoka Prison. The central facilities looked like a person prone, with the head facing the north and both arms outstretched. Fukuoka Prison had been a regional prison until three years before, when it was elevated to national status. With the Pacific War the country fell into chaos. Anti-war intellectuals and criminals ran wild, beyond the reach of the police. The prison was extended repeatedly, but still it couldn’t handle the massive influx of prisoners. But the authorities had deemed it necessary to have internment facilities to isolate the anti-Japanese Koreans, who were quick to erupt with complaints, and decided on Fukuoka Prison, away from the heart of the country.

The administrative offices, including the warden’s office, were sited in the central facilities. Japanese prisoners who were accorded special treatment were held in Ward One. Wards Two and Three split off at the end of the administrative wing. In Ward Two were vicious murderers or robbers, and long-term prisoners. Ward Three was reserved for anti-Japanese Korean rebels and death-row inmates. Lesser Japanese criminals were held in Wards Four and Five, which were added onto Ward Three to the west.

Despite the additions, the prison still overflowed with inmates. Ward Three in particular teemed with incidents, accidents and trouble. Prisoners went on hunger strikes, violence was frequent and executions were common. These Koreans were determined to be the most vicious, dangerous inmates and they were treated accordingly. The most robust and strongest guards were assigned there and every order was given with the swing of a club. Countless prisoners were beaten to death.

The dark scent of tobacco and mahogany washed over me as I stood at attention in the warden’s office. The bracing morning air came through the open window. An award certificate stamped with the Emperor’s royal seal was hanging on the wall and underneath it, side by side, were the crest of the samurai and the Rising Sun. A long military knife and a gleaming rifle were displayed on a solid-wood cabinet. Warden Hasegawa, whose balding pate was ringed with a thatch of hair, waved a long baton as though it were an extension of his body, his eyes closed. His chestnut-brown trousers were sharply creased and badges flashed on his chest. A man’s powerful, elegant singing, edged with sadness, reverberated in the room. A record was spinning on the phonograph, which stood on a table draped with red velvet. The warden’s office, complete with elegant floor-to-ceiling windows, sonorous singing and blinding morning sun, was a sanctuary. I had no idea that such a plush space existed in this drab brick building. Hasegawa picked up the needle and the phonograph’s crackling halted. Stroking his neatly trimmed moustache, he seemed to revel in the music’s lingering resonance.

‘Watanabe Yuichi, Ward Three, sir!’

Hasegawa moved the baton to his other hand and stood up. The thoughtful middle-aged man enjoying a mellifluous song quickly transformed into a cold prison warden, his smile stiffening and his eyes emitting a chill. ‘I already heard all about the dead guard, from Maeda.’

I wondered why he’d called me in. That was when it dawned on me – I was the last person who had seen Sugiyama alive. I clenched my molars to still my trembling lips.

‘Are you a student-soldier?’ His voice, as sharp as a hawk’s talons, sank into me as if I were a field mouse.

Was I a suspect? ‘Yes, sir. I was a liberal-arts student at the Third High School in Kyoto.’

‘Lucky fellow. Your friends who were conscripted at the same time would have been sent to the Southern Front. You were assigned in Japan – to a prison, at that – not even to a military battalion.’ His eyes glinted as he appraised me. ‘You’ll take this incident.’

Did he mean I should take care of the funeral? Or was he accusing me of the murder? It would have been preferable to go to the Southern Front. ‘I will report the murder to the Special Higher Police,’ I managed to squeak.

Hasegawa nodded and looked at me with his piercing gaze. ‘Right. That would be the standard procedure. But here in Fukuoka Prison we can’t follow standard procedures. We have the most dangerous elements of the archipelago here – men who need to be eliminated from society, people who shouldn’t have been born to begin with. You can’t employ common sense with them. The military can’t do anything with them, let alone the Special Higher Police. Everything that happens here is a battle, and we’re the only ones equipped to deal with what goes on in here. So don’t bring up the goddamn police again!’

There was nothing I could say in reply.

‘Take over this investigation. Find out which criminal element killed Sugiyama Dozan and why. Get yourself immediately to the head guard’s office and request assistance. He’ll see to it that you don’t have any difficulty with this investigation. He’ll get you the documents you need and set up interrogations with the prisoners. I want to know immediately if anything new is revealed!’

I clacked my heels together and froze at attention, feeling lost. I gave him a military salute, turned around and left.

The guard office was at the end of the administrative ward, where Wards Two and Three split off. Behind the wooden door were the guardroom and the holding cell, a neutral space between the prisoners and the guards. At one end of the guardroom was a shabby office, sectioned off by temporary walls. I opened the crooked door. Water was boiling in the kettle on top of the rusty stove, tended to by Maeda, his dress-uniform cap pressed firmly over his eyebrows. He never took off that cap; it made him taller, covered his balding head, and cast an authoritative shadow over his close-set eyes, drooping eyebrows and flat nose. Nearing fifty, Maeda looked much older than his years; he’d spent his entire life trapped in the brown uniform, surrounded by people who’d reached the end of their lives. He nodded to me and murmured, ‘So it’s finally come to this.’

I wasn’t sure if he was addressing me. ‘Did you know Sugiyama-san would be killed?’

His face became impassive, as though a curtain had been drawn. He tossed a file onto his desk, the Ward Three shift report. He licked his finger and flipped through the document. ‘I’m not the only one who thought something would happen to him. I didn’t know it would be in this horrible way . . .’

‘What kind of shit was Sugiyama involved in?’ I deliberately chose to call him by name, without the polite -san. That removed any suggestion of sympathy.

Maeda softened. ‘When he came back from Nomonhan, he couldn’t rid himself of his wartime habits. He treated prisoners as if they were enemies. He acted as if he were waging battle. I mean, someone had to. The prisoners here look submissive, but don’t be fooled. They’ll rip you apart if you give them the chance. Sugiyama became an animal, too.’

Outside, the wind blew through the gaunt spindle trees, creating a piping sound. The kettle on top of the stove stopped boiling; the fire was dying down.

‘This isn’t just a guard’s death!’ Maeda shouted suddenly. ‘This is war. They’ve declared war! The murderer is here, somewhere. Let me tell you, Ward Three is a different beast. It’s where the worst of the criminals go, the most vicious – Koreans, traitors and Communists. This place stinks of blood. They bare their fangs and rip into each other. If you aren’t careful, you could end up just like Sugiyama.’ His words dripped with hatred and derision.

The coal in the furnace crackled. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I felt like a pilot who’d made an emergency landing in enemy territory, unsure of which direction I was facing. But I had to do my job. I picked up the file Maeda had tossed aside. I opened its worn, glossy cover. I inhaled the scent of sweet paper, losing myself for a moment in delicious ink and fragrant trees. The last entry was dated 22 December.

Guards usually scribbled ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ instead of a detailed record of the day or, if even that proved too difficult, they wrote: ‘N/A’. But Sugiyama’s reports were notable for their detail. Even almost-identical events from the previous day were recorded slightly differently. On the night before he died he’d written: ‘349 prisoners sleeping in a total of 48 cells. Patrol time 2–6 a.m. 348 steps roundtrip along Ward Three corridor. Many patients with colds. Slow recovery of one patient with contusions and fractures.’ The previous day he’d written: ‘From 2 to 6 a.m. checked 346 prisoners in 48 cells through the surveillance window. More patients with colds, one patient with fractures and contusions.’ The patient with contusions and fractures was mentioned daily; I became curious about his identity and the source of his injuries. I flipped back, page by page. The first clue I found was in the 13 December report. ‘Prisoner 331 in Cell 28: repressed with club for refusal of orders and inappropriate actions. Moved to infirmary after collapse, took emergency measures. Contusions all over the body including the head, suspected fracture to shoulder and ribs.’ I was a little surprised that he’d faithfully recorded the conditions of the men he’d personally clubbed. I looked up 331’s records. Name: Choi Chi-su. Crime: study of Communism and overthrow of the government, assassination attempt of a key government figure, rebellion plot. He was a long-term prisoner.

I stood up and adjusted my uniform. I wondered whether this man could illuminate the mystery of Sugiyama’s death. But when Sugiyama was killed, all the prisoners were in their cells. Only guards and rats were awake and mobile. Still, 331 was the only person I could think of to question.

*****

Later, under the faint shadow of the tall brick wall lining the yard, I studied the piece of paper I’d found in Sugiyama’s uniform. Its worn corners were disintegrating, but it seemed to retain his body heat. I turned the paper over; it was a ledger of incoming and outgoing post for Ward Three. 27 March 1942. Incoming: 14; Outgoing: 5. At the bottom the sender’s name, address and the prisoner number of the recipient were written in black ink. The first hesitant stroke revealed a careful personality, while the following clumsy but sure strokes suggested a strong sense of purpose.

I believed handwriting revealed one’s soul. The shape and position of the script announced not only a person’s character and desires, but also his mood and feelings at the time he was writing, as did the space between the letters and lines and the speed with which he scrawled. Even a blank piece of paper tells the reader something about the person who chose not to write. As for the content – I was well aware of the magic of consonants as they ruptured in my mouth; of the elegance of vowels as they tumbled out fluidly; and of the way they created pitch and meaning and feeling as they mixed and crashed into each other. I recalled characters from novels I’d read long ago. The bleak prison yard became the snow-covered Siberia in Tolstoy’s Resurrection; if I were to love someone, I would love a woman like Katyusha. If words could explain lives, why couldn’t they illuminate death? I searched for Sugiyama’s core in his strokes and punctuation, but I soon grew confused. I glimpsed two very different people. The exact same writing was on the shift report and the post ledger; the writer was confident and fearless, like the Sugiyama I was familiar with. Though the poem seemed written by the same hand, the strokes seemed bashful and hesitant. Did Sugiyama write both the official reports and the poem, too? Or did someone copy Sugiyama’s handwriting? And, most importantly, why was that piece of paper in his pocket?

THINGS THAT POOL IN THE HEART BEFORE TRICKLING DOWN

Darkness began to descend over the prison walls. Every afternoon at this time I heard the same seductive piano melody playing somewhere; I hummed along automatically. A light was on in the infirmary. Drawn by the music, I started walking towards it. I stopped at the auditorium window and looked in; a grand piano stood imposingly, as confident as a boat with expanded sails voyaging through the red sunset. Its colonnades, curves and the fine, elaborate carvings – it created an otherworldly effect. A woman was sitting at the piano, which let out a clear, delicate sound each time her fingers caressed the keys; I felt as though I’d seen the source of a majestic river, a small spring deep in the mountains. Her white fingers undulated like waves, scurried like mice and flitted like curious birds. In a trance, I gazed at this forbidding world from the other side of the clear glass. Time passed ever so slowly. She was like an exotic bird flying into the sunset, into darkness, into silence. As the air absorbed the last melodies, she straightened and looked out the window. Was she looking at me? I stared at her, bewitched; she was indeed real. She was wearing a neat white nurse’s uniform; her slender face was as smooth as a ceramic pot; her hair glistened in the amber light of the waning sun. Her high forehead, slender eyebrows and the corners of her almond-shaped eyes were enchanting, her cheeks were flushed, and her slightly parted lips prodded my curiosity.

I wanted to introduce myself, but my shabby appearance made me hesitate. I watched as she held a hairpin in her mouth before securing her nurse’s cap. She glanced down at her reflection on the piano lid before taking her files and hurrying across the auditorium. With each step, her white skirt flapped at her calves. Before I realized what I was doing, I stepped into the building. I walked down the pristine corridor to the auditorium. The doors opened silently as though they had been waiting for me. I approached the glistening piano, awed by its black-and-white keys, the vibrant grain of the wood, its sturdy tendon-like strings. I looked down at the back of my cracked, rough hands, at my fingernails rimmed with grime. Could fingers this dirty make a melody? I pressed a key; a clear note rang out, thawing my heart. I closed my eyes.

‘That’s soh.’ A voice twinkled like the scales of sweetfish swimming upstream. Hundreds of bells tolled in my ears.

I looked behind me. Her lips were pursed, but she didn’t seem reproachful. She held black files against her chest, creating a vivid contrast against her white uniform. Her fingers were pale and long and delicate; her pinkish nails had a transparent lustre. How long had she been watching me?

‘It’s also called G. It’s the fifth note. For your little finger. It’s the arbiter of sound that harmonizes with all notes, a bridge that links the ponderous dark low notes and delicate high notes.’ She looked me over.

I shrank. I was bedraggled; my uniform was covered in dirt, my skin had been pummelled by dusty winds, my lips were blistered, I hadn’t bathed in a while. She smiled slightly. Was she jeering silently at me? Or was it compassion?

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, stiffly. ‘Coming in here without permission and touching this object . . .’ I searched for a way to end the sentence. I wanted to bite my clumsy tongue for calling this enchanting, captivating instrument an object.

She said it was fine, that it wasn’t her piano, and reached over to pick up the sheet music she’d left on the rack.

I mustered up the courage to speak to her again. ‘The piece you just played – what is it called? I think I’ve heard it before, but I don’t remember the title.’

Instead of answering, she opened the sheet music. The title was written on the top. Die Winterreise. ‘It’s German. Winter Journey.’

‘Winter Journey . . .’ I echoed.

‘Schubert composed these lieder for Wilhelm Müller’s poems. It’s a total of twenty-four songs published as Opus 89. The singer tells of the loneliness of life and the pain of love, but even played with just the piano, it’s truly beautiful. The piano in Die Winterreise doesn’t merely accompany the singer. It sets the tone of the whole piece. I would say it’s a duet of a pianist and a singer.’

‘It makes me wonder which singer would be able to hold his own.’

‘Professor Marui Yasujiro. He’s the foremost tenor in Japan. He teaches at Tokyo Imperial University Music School and has made several records. He’s renowned worldwide, especially for performing Schubert. To really express the loneliness and gloom of this piece, he sang it as a baritone. His performances are some of the best interpretations of Schubert’s work.’

I was sufficiently awed, and it must have shown on my face.

‘Professor Marui is planning to give a concert, wishing for peace in Asia, here next February,’ the nurse told me. ‘He decided not to use his usual accompanist for this concert; he wants someone working here. He thought that was more fitting with the themes of hope and peace. That’s why I’ve been practising so hard.’ She smiled, revealing her even teeth, which resembled the piano’s white keys. ‘I’m Iwanami Midori,’ she said. Her words rippled like water and pooled in my heart.

‘Watanabe – Yuichi . . .’ I stammered, disgusted with myself that I couldn’t utter my own name without stuttering.

She nodded before walking across the wooden floor. ‘Iwanami Midori . . .’ I murmured. Her name sounded like a melody.

It was snowing outside. The snow fell through the darkness, crackling like thin ice. The night air was heavy with ice and cold and heartlessness and conspiracies and secrets and other unknowable things. Our barracks formed a makeshift structure on the west side of the central facilities. By the time I returned, the lights were out and the other conscripted guards were deep in slumber. The coal stove glowed in the middle. I stumbled into my sleeping bag, which smelled of other people. It had been a long day. Sugiyama’s death, searching for clues but learning nothing, the mysterious poem. I wasn’t Sherlock Holmes or a Special Higher Police detective. I didn’t have the skills to solve a gruesome murder, let alone the means to catch the perpetrator.

The wind swept the snow off the galvanized iron roof above my head. The amber light, the warm air, the elegant piano, the girl in white . . . I folded my hands on my chest and felt the piece of paper that I’d retrieved from Sugiyama’s uniform:

As a stranger I arrived,
As a stranger again I leave.
May was kind to me
With many bunches of flowers.
The girl spoke of love,
Her mother even of marriage,
Now the world is bleak,
The path covered by snow.

That violent guard wrote such poetry? It didn’t match up. Was it a clue, or a sign left by the murderer? Why would a criminal leave a mysterious poem in the victim’s pocket? I was as puzzled as ever, but grew convinced that the poem contained the key. The song I’d heard Midori playing earlier circled in my head – the song of one man’s despair, of painful love. Melody embraced poetry, and poetry was laid over melody. The harmony of sounds layered over the verse; the tinkling of the piano sparkled in the golden light of the furnace. Three faces hovered in my mind – Sugiyama, Hasegawa, Midori. Poetry, melody, piano.

Before the war tore my life into pieces, my days began in a single-storey house topped with an attic in the outskirts of Kyoto, and proceeded to a small used bookshop run by my mother. I spent hours among the old wooden bookshelves piled with dust, surrounded by paper. Walls of books protected us from the ominous news of the war. Nothing could filter in through the hundreds of thousands of pages; not the brawling of merchants or the clomping of marching soldiers or the cold of the winter night. The books protected me from the era’s rebellions and from my anxiety about the future. I snuggled deeper in my prison-issue sleeping bag, recalling forgotten names, their faces as vivid as a new photograph – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, André Gide, Lord Byron, Rainer Maria Rilke.

We opened the bookshop the year I went into middle school. Three years earlier my father had applied to the Manchurian military academy, but he was too old. He was finally able to enrol after audaciously demonstrating his sincerity with a letter written in his blood and sent to the Army Minister. Early in the morning on the day of departure, my mother and I followed him to Kyoto Station. From behind, amid the plump flitting snowflakes, he looked like a wooden toy soldier, weighed down with gear. Thick, solid icicles clung to the dark wheels of the train that was puffing out white steam. Father’s scratchy beard was caked with frost. His eyelashes were long, like mine.

‘Yuichi, be good to your mother.’ Father’s frozen words mixed with his white breath, the whistle of the black train and the stomping of military boots. The crying of women fell away, buried by military song, as Father walked slowly into the black steel monster.

Mother rented a small shop front, installed bookshelves and hung up a white tin sign. A few strands of hair kept falling across her forehead. I bought her a butterfly pin as a fulfilment of Father’s last request. At the front of the shop Mother repaired torn covers with thick paste, replaced missing covers with stiff strawboard, restitched unravelled bindings and re-created ripped spines with silk cloth. Books ruined beyond salvation ended their lives there, becoming kindling or a sack containing warm roasted sweet potatoes on a winter night, or the paper with which to wipe a young child’s nose. Even after the books died, their sentences lived and breathed. Plato’s wisdom printed across a sack of sweet potatoes might attract the attention of a poor student; Dumas’s words might move the father who wiped his young son’s nose, prompting him to unfold the sticky sheet.

Our days began and ended in that small bookshop. Every day at dawn we went there, stepping through the chilly air. When we opened the locked glass door, the stale smell of books rushed at us in greeting. After school I returned to the cradle of books. Mother was at the front counter greeting customers while at the back, among the narrow bookshelves, I stamped the inside of each book with our shop’s seal, like a cowboy branding a calf, to welcome the books into our family. I sneezed from the dust, sliced my fingers on the sharp pages and bruised myself with the heavy corners, but I was happy. I organized the books by field and subject and displayed popular books at the front; each and every book became a world of its own. Universes were organized on the shelves according to my will. I exerted absolute control according to my own order and rules, putting Tolstoy’s essays on the same shelf as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a yellowed copy of Othello next to King Lear. Soon I could guess the age of a book just by its scent and understand a book’s core from a quick glance at the table of contents, like a farmer who could tell the maturity and sweetness of a fruit from just its colour and the texture of its skin. I could conjure up people’s interests by taking in their expressions as they entered through the glass door. Most of the time I handed them the books they asked for, but sometimes, when they sought books I wanted to keep forever, I didn’t – The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; a book of Van Gogh’s paintings in colour; The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. When the customers turned away in disappointment, I felt both guilty and secretly thrilled.

A maze of books beckoned at me from the back of the shop. I hid in the sewers of Paris on the eve of revolution and met a woman in snowy, frigid Siberia. I ventured into the world of heroes and gods and visited a lone island where a dethroned prince was imprisoned. Books were cities I’d never visited, filled with pillars of great thoughts and streets of phrases, mazes of abstruse sentence structures and alleys of complicated syllables. They were stores that displayed a wide range of things, punctuation twinkling like the crest of a venerable family, sentences breathing peacefully, words whispering. I returned to reality when the roof of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion shimmered from far away and the sky turned orange. As darkness descended, Mother closed the doors. The world of sentences sank into the night, the heroes and kings and ladies mourning lost love falling asleep. On our way home Mother looked lonely; I would make endless conversation, asking about the books that had been sold that day, who bought them and what they were about. I was always pleasantly surprised when Mother gave me detailed answers about what she’d read long ago, or books she’d wanted to read but hadn’t got round to. Mother sometimes laughed, although her laughter was always hollow. I knew I couldn’t take on her loneliness or her exhaustion; I could almost smell Father’s cigarettes and sweat and faint sorrow. Like a drawing in sand, Father’s face eroded with time. We didn’t receive a single letter from him. Eventually I found myself no longer waiting for him to write, no longer pining for his return. I forgot him; I had to forget him first, so as not to be forgotten myself. I didn’t want to waste my whole life hoping for a miracle.

Mother was lonely and I was withdrawn, but we weren’t unhappy. That fortress of books was our refuge. I discovered this only a long time later, but it was also the price of my father’s life, what he’d given us when he walked into the war zone in Manchuria. I might have been a little less sad if I’d never known that. But the timing of everything is always off. Man is in pain because he finds love too early, because he hasn’t seen someone for too long and because he discovers the truth too late.


Excerpted from The Investigation by Jung-myung Lee. Copyright © Jung-myung Lee 2014. Translation copyright © Chi-Young Kim 2014.
First published 2014 by Mantle, 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The House of Dolls by David Hewson – Extract

The House of Dolls

1

‘Vos?’

Laura Bakker walked through every room of the Rijksmuseum looking for him.

‘Pieter Vos?’

A slight man of medium height, hunched in a pale-green winter coat that had seen better days. Seated on a bench in front of the biggest doll’s house she’d ever seen, Vos seemed both young and old at the same time. His posture, his long brown hair, his creased and worn clothing spoke of middle age. Yet his face was unlined, interested, alert. That of a favourite teacher or a caring, patient priest. And his blue eyes, fixed entirely on the doll’s house opposite, had the bright, hard glint of a piece of pottery on the mantelpiece back home in Dokkum. Unwavering. Intelligent.

She’d read the file before De Groot dispatched her from the police station a short bike ride away in Marnixstraat. Pieter Vos, thirty-nine. Resigned from his position as Brigadier in that same station two years before after the failure of the investigation into the disappearance of his daughter Anneliese. Now living a downbeat bohemian existence on a houseboat in the Jordaan, struggling to survive on the paltry remains of his premature pension.

Bakker pulled out the folder she’d brought. Papers, photos scattered everywhere. She swore. Heads turned. Then she scooped up the strewn documents and pictures from the floor and crammed them back into place.

He was staring at her by then. A look she knew. It said… that was clumsy.

‘Vos?’ she asked, glancing at the ID photo to make sure this was the right man. In the force Vos was even more boyish in appearance. Events had aged him.

De Groot was his boss. A personal friend too from what she could gather. Heartbroken by Vos’s resignation and the loss of a famed Amsterdam police officer to… what?

Trying to repair his ramshackle houseboat on the Prinsengracht no more than a five-minute walk from the desk he once occupied. The early newspaper cuttings lauded Vos as a scourge of the city’s underworld, a languid, modest detective who’d torn the city’s gangs to shreds with a shrug and a smile. Not that there was much to read. He’d shunned the limelight when he was in post. Fled from it when his own daughter went missing, shattered, or so the papers said, that his own diligence as a police officer may have brought about her abduction. A fruitless search followed and then Vos was out of the force. Anneliese was one more name in the missing persons files. A case in the archives, gathering digital dust.

He had a lead coming out of his pocket, earphones on. She leaned down, gently pulled them out, was surprised to hear the loud jazz-rock of ‘Willie the Pimp’ coming out of them.

‘Pieter Vos?’ she said again and found herself reaching out to touch his arm, not quite knowing why. The long, uncombed hair and shabby clothes… there was something fragile about the man. It was hard to associate this quiet, absorbed figure with the Brigadier who put so many in jail. ‘You haven’t got time to listen to Zappa. Commissaris de Groot wants to see you in your office. Pick up your stuff. We’re off.’

‘What do you know about Zappa?’ he asked in a kindly, amused voice.

‘My dad liked him. Used to play that stuff all night long if he could get away with it. Get moving. We’re off.’

‘Why does Frank send me children?’ he asked then put the earphones on again.

She sat down next to him on the bench, folded her arms, thought for a moment then reached into his pocket and yanked out the lead for phones.

The look on his face was a mixture of surprise and outrage. ‘That’s quite a thing,’ Bakker said, pointing at the display case in front of them.

The doll’s house of Petronella Oortman was complex and a good head taller than Pieter Vos. An Amsterdam canal mansion in miniature. Three floors, each with three rooms and an adjoining staircase corridor. A kitchen, a parlour, a nursery, furniture and paintings, crockery and delicate, miniature draperies. He couldn’t stop staring at it and she knew why.

‘My name’s Laura Bakker. Twenty-four years old and no child, thank you.’

When his bright blue eyes fell on her she had nothing else to say.

‘Missing the green fields of Friesland, Laura?’

It was the accent that did it. Amsterdammers looked down on everything outside the capital. She came from the provinces. People there were simple, stupid even.

‘There’s more to Friesland than green fields,’ she said.

‘What does your father do when he’s not listening to Zappa?’ ‘Farmer.’

She was tall. Lanky even. Her fine red hair was pulled back behind her head, a practical decision for work. Laura Bakker didn’t give much thought to how she looked. Her long face was pale and, she felt, unremarkable. Not much different from when she was seventeen.

‘Do you miss him?’ he asked.

‘Yes but he’s dead,’ she said. ‘Mum too. Not that this matters. Just get your stuff, will you?’

He didn’t move.

She took out another folder from her bag, almost spilled the contents of that on the floor. He looked at her, one dark eyebrow raised, then went back to gazing at the doll’s house.

‘That cost Petronella twenty, thirty thousand guilders. As much as her mansion on Warmoesstraat I guess. Which is probably a coffee shop now, selling bad marijuana to drunken Brits.’

‘You look like you were expecting me, Vos. How’s that?’ ‘Magic. Didn’t you read the files?’

‘They don’t say anything about magic. Plenty else… ’ ‘Oortman was a wealthy widow. Her money came from the silk trade. Which kind of lived alongside slavery and spice. So maybe… ’ He stroked his chin, trying to find the right word. ‘Maybe things aren’t that different.’

‘Warmoesstraat? Is that where you buy your dope?’ ‘I said it was bad.’

‘It’s all bad, Vos.’

‘You’re young, Laura. What do you know?’

‘I know the daughter of the vice-mayor’s gone missing. Katja Prins. Not the first time apparently. But—’

‘Frank called me. He said he was sending their new aspirant. A simple country girl who thought she might catch drunk drivers in Dokkum. And when that didn’t happen felt she could make a difference in Amsterdam. He gave me your name.’

The blood rushed to her cheeks. Her fingers automatically clutched the simple, silver crucifix around her neck, over the plain black jumper.

‘By simple I’m sure he meant… unspoilt,’ Vos added in his quiet and diffident voice. ‘Nothing untoward. He said you crashed a squad car… ’

She wasn’t going there.

‘Your daughter was snatched by a man obsessed with dolls. There’s something like that with the Prins girl… ’

She placed the photo on his lap. An antique porcelain child’s doll in a white pinafore dress and a police evidence label next to it. There was a hank of blonde hair in its right hand. The pinafore had a large bloodstain covering most of the front.

Her long index finger jabbed at the gigantic model opposite. ‘Looks just like that one over there, in the Oortman house, doesn’t it? Just like the one he sent you? Except for the blood and the hair.’

Vos sighed.

‘The hair was in its left hand with me. The bloodstain was smaller.’

‘Katja was staying at a tenement in De Wallen… ’

‘The daughter of the man who runs the city council living in the red-light district? Doesn’t that tell you something?’

‘She hasn’t been seen for a week. We’re testing to see if the blood and the hair are hers. The doll was left outside her father’s house last night. In a miniature cardboard coffin. Just like he did with you in Marnixstraat… ’

No surprise. Just a sad, resigned smile. It seemed his natural expression.

‘Did Frank tell you Wim Prins’s wife was my partner for seventeen years? Anneliese’s mother?’

The heat fled her cheeks. ‘No.’

‘Amsterdam’s a small place. Not as small as Dokkum… ’

Vos went back to looking at the little rooms, the furniture, the doll marooned in a tiny nursery four centuries before.

‘Katja’s a crazy little junkie,’ he said, almost to himself. ‘Her own mother was too. She killed herself. The girl hates her stepmother. What’s new there?’

‘Vos… ’

‘She’s tried to extort money out of her father before. He always refuses to press a case. It seems she has a cruel imagination… ’

‘And if you’re wrong? If this is the same man who took your daughter?’

A shrug.

‘Then I expect you to do a better job than I did. You must excuse me.’ He rose from the bench seat, stretched his arms, took out a set of keys. ‘I have to go… ’

‘Do you think you’ll see him here, then? Is it as easy as that? He’ll walk in and you’ll know.’

Her words seemed to disappoint him.

‘No,’ Vos replied. ‘But I want him to see me. Good day, Aspirant Bakker. I wish you well in your career.’

Then he plugged the earphones back into the phone, put them in his ears, and left.

2

Jimmy Menzo sat in a cold basement by the grey-brown bulk of the Oude Kerk. The faint drone of a pipe organ made its weedy way through the high slatted window. Outside, in the shadow of the squat church, the first morning whores writhed behind the glass of their cabins, waving their come-on gestures to the tourists wandering wide-eyed down the street.

Some stopped. Some walked on into the coffee shops. Doped or screwed, he got into their wallets either way. The city was a money machine. His. Not going to change.

Menzo had fled the slums of Surinamese when he was nineteen, abandoning the squalor of South America for the Netherlands, a harsh new world he entered with nothing more than a handful of guilders in his pocket, two powerful scarred fists and a head full of envy and ambition.

Two decades on he lived in a mansion near the waterfront, not far from the red-light district with his coffee shops and brothels, his cabins for rent to the freelance hookers and, most profitable of all, his hands around the drug supply chains threading through the area the locals called De Wallen.

From Centraal station in the north to Spui, from Nieuwmarkt to Damrak, the heart of Amsterdam belonged to the man who’d left the hovels of Paramaribo with nothing but some ragged clothes and a few hundred US dollars ripped off a failed coke shipment.

He’d earned this prize. Fought for it. And good fortune had put his one last rival, Theo Jansen, in jail.

That was two years before. Twenty-four months had passed in which Menzo battled night and day to seize every last fragment of Jansen’s empire, changing loyalties through money, through persuasion, through hard fists or the barrel of a gun when needed.

It was war of a kind and, like most modern conflicts, this one would never end.

Now a couple of kids fidgeted across the table from him. About the age Menzo was when he first turned up in Holland touting a fake passport and a forged work permit. Ugly like him, brutal, looking for opportunity. From Surinamese, once a little piece of Holland on the edge of South America. Short, stocky wannabe thugs not long arrived in town, one dressed in a shiny blue tracksuit, the other in red.

Four weapons on the battered wooden table. Two machine pistols, a couple of semi-automatic Walther P5s, the same kind the police used. Which was no coincidence, not that he said.

The two hunched, scared figures opposite couldn’t stop looking at them.

‘We’d planned on staying longer.’ The blue one. The bravest.

Menzo threw a briefcase on the table, opened it. They went quiet, stared at the spread of green money.

‘Fifty thousand US dollars. A couple of Antilles passports. Two tickets to Cape Town. Business class.’

‘Business class,’ red kid repeated, reaching for the case.

A bronchial, smoker’s laugh. Menzo was about the same size, pug-like and thuggish, strong, not one to shirk a fight. Pockmarked surly face. Narrow eyes. Swarthy skin.

He passed over a sheet of paper with Miriam’s tidy, female handwriting on it. A Prinsengracht address.

‘Miriam can fill you in. Afterwards you go here. It’s a shop. There you get the money. And the tickets.’

They looked at the paper like dumb school kids given impenetrable homework.

‘When can we come back?’ blue kid asked.

‘You don’t. You take the money and do what I did. Make your own way. I’ve friends over there. They can get you started.’

The two kids looked at each another. ‘What kind of shop?’ the red one asked.

Menzo liked their idiot questions, rifled through the pockets of his jacket. Black silk suit, sharp, tapered, tight. Made for him by a tailor in Bangkok where he went for business and a little pleasure.

Two business cards, the same pretty picture on the front. A miniature Amsterdam canal mansion in wood. Tiny pink chairs with tinier figures on them.

Poppenhuis aan de Prinsengracht.

The Doll’s House on the Prinsengracht. He gave the kids a card each.

‘Dolls?’ red kid asked.

‘Don’t worry,’ Menzo told him. ‘They’re not there any more. Someone got rid of all the pretty things a while back.’

‘I got a sister here,’ the blue one said. ‘She just came out. Working in one of your restaurants. She needs me. If I leave—’

‘I’ll look after your sister. Make her manager. Give her a bar. Or something.’

A big, friendly smile.

‘Ask anyone. You do what Jimmy Menzo asks and no one ever touches you. I look after my own. Even when they’re someplace else.’

‘We’ve got a choice?’ blue kid asked quickly and Menzo thought maybe he’d underestimated this Surinamese brat, new off the plane, two hits to his name, police chasing him up and down the mainland and the Caribbean.

‘Sure you’ve got a choice.’

He lit a cigarette, listened to the asthmatic tones of the distant church organ. It was spring outside. Still cold with squally rain between brief spells of sun.

He took away the briefcase, put it on the floor. Their eyes were on the weapons.

Menzo got up from his seat, smiled at them. Launched himself at the table, seized the nearest machine pistol in his right fist. Waved the barrel in red kid’s face, then the blue. Laughing all the while.

‘Miriam?’ he yelled.

The door opened. Taller than Menzo, physique of a basketball player. Just touching thirty. Long face, one quarter Chinese she said and he believed it. A Trinidad girl, she barely spoke Dutch. Just English.

‘What?’ she asked.

Brown fur coat. What kind he didn’t know or care. She got all the money she wanted. Gave plenty in return.

‘These boys aren’t up to it,’ Menzo said. ‘Drive ’em to the station. Put ’em on a train somewhere. They’re pissing me off.’

The Surinamese brats shuffled on their seats, dumb young eyes on each other.

The woman walked up, threw some filthy English insults in their direction, glared at them with her big white staring eyes.

‘Fifty thousand dollars? How much you punks make back in Paramaribo?’

She leaned over them. There was a presence to her, both enticing and threatening. Menzo loved the way she could scare a man and make him want her at the same time.

The kids were shivering. More than they did for him.

‘How… much… ?’ Miriam wanted to know.

‘Money’s no good if you don’t get to stay alive,’ blue kid mumbled.

Her long fingers wound into his lank, greasy hair, shook his head. Hard. Menzo watched, chuckled.

‘You get to stay alive, boy!’ she yelled at them. ‘More alive than we ever was when we showed up here. You get to live somewhere warm and cheap and sunny. Where no one knows who you are. How hard can it be?’

Their eyes were on the floor. Menzo put the long black weapon back on the table next to the others.

‘Not hard at all,’ he said then opened the case again, plucked a wad of the dollar bills, waved them in their faces.

‘What are we supposed to do?’ red kid asked. Battle won.

‘Whatever Miriam tells you. Flight goes to London at six o’clock. You’re in Cape Town for breakfast. Looking at a new life.’

He patted the black gun.

‘You hear that? A new life. A little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.’

Menzo waited. Miriam Smith waited, standing back on her heels, folding her arms through the brown fur coat.

‘Thanks,’ said red kid obediently.

‘Yeah,’ said the blue one and stared at the cold stone floor.

3

As usual Sam had stayed with the woman Vos had befriended in the security office. He retrieved the little dog, said thanks, then led him outside. The rain was holding off. He placed the white and tan fox terrier in the front basket of his rusting black pushbike, adjusted the plastic windscreen at the front, pulled two elastic bands out of his jacket pocket and snapped them round the bottom of his wide, unfashionable, creased and shabby jeans to keep them out of the chain.

Zappa had given way to Van Halen. He pulled out the phones and stuffed them into his pockets. One look at his jeans, the decrepit black bike, the dog in the front. Then he set off into the morning traffic for the ten-minute ride to the houseboat on the Prinsengracht.

Cyclists and trams. Cars and motorbikes. Baffled tourists wandering among them all, not knowing which way to look.

He’d asked Frank de Groot straight out: was there any news of Anneliese? The smallest piece of evidence to link her with the Prins girl apart from a doll? The silence that followed said everything.

Just eighteen months old, the dog circled the basket three times then settled, got bored and, as the bike picked up speed past Leidseplein, rose to his haunches, put his long nose and beard into the wind, turning from side to side with delight, mouth open, white teeth in an apparent grin.

The first spot of rain and he’d be back behind the windscreen. But spring was beginning to peek out from behind the grey shroud of winter. The lime trees showered the streets with their feathery seeds like tall statues scattering pale-green confetti for a wedding to come. The dog would enjoy his second lazy summer on the water, basking amidst the ragged vegetable and flower pots on the deck, enjoying the attentions of camera-happy tourists. More anonymously, Vos would too. And before the year was out the boat would be finished finally. He could try to think about what might come next.

A furious ringing of bells from behind, an exchange of cross words in English. Then, as he entered the long straight cycle path that ran alongside the canal, Laura Bakker pedalled briskly to his side muttering curses about tourists.

She was riding a rusty olive-green granny bike with high handlebars, sitting stiff-backed, a strand of red hair escaping to blow behind her in the spring breeze. The grey trouser suit looked as if it belonged in the 1970s. So, in a way, did Laura Bakker.

One hand, he saw, worked her phone. Talking while she rode, not looking where she was going. Or, worse, texting. As he watched the thing nearly fell from her grasp. She only stopped it with the sudden, informed response of someone who recognized how truly clumsy she was.

‘Vos! Vos!’ Bakker cried when she’d got firm hold of the phone again. ‘Listen to me! Stop, will you? Commissaris de Groot wants to see you to discuss this in person.’

A pleasure boat slowed on the canal. A pack of people in the front started taking pictures of them. Sam, paws on the front basket, little head into the breeze, shook his fur like a model posing for the camera.

‘Why on earth did De Groot send you? Of all people?’ Vos asked, keeping his eyes on the path ahead.

‘What’s wrong with me?’ She looked offended. ‘Just because I’m from Dokkum… it doesn’t mean I’m a moron.’ A glance towards Marnixstraat. ‘Whatever anyone thinks.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ Vos muttered then wove through a crowd of visitors wandering across the cycle track and quickly rode on.

‘Your dog’s very cute,’ Bakker noted as she caught up again.

A smile then. For a moment she looked like a naive student fresh out of college trying to persuade the world at large to take notice and treat her seriously.

‘You don’t know him,’ Vos said.

‘I always wanted a pet.’

He stiffened with outrage. ‘A pet? Sam’s not a pet.’

Laura Bakker seemed worried she might have offended him. ‘What is he then?’

The gentle rise of a bridge approached. Vos pedalled harder, left her behind again, took his hands off the handlebar, throwing up both arms in despair.

The tourists tracking them on the canal launch loved this even more. An argument among locals. A lover’s tiff even.

She was back by his side quickly, more of her red hair free now, flying back beyond her shoulders.

‘This is childish,’ Laura Bakker declared.

‘Being pursued along the canal by a wet-behind-the-ears junior. That’s childish,’ he complained, and realized how petulant he sounded. ‘Arrest me and have done with it.’

‘I can’t arrest people. I’m not allowed. Commissaris de Groot doesn’t believe Katja’s trying to extort money from anyone. He thinks this is to do with your daughter’s case… ’

Enough. He put out a hand to steady the dog then brought the bike to a sudden halt. The little animal yapped gleefully as if this were all a game.

‘I told you. Frank called me this morning,’ he repeated as Laura Bakker stopped by his side. ‘No one demanded a ransom for my daughter. No one gave me the chance to save her. If—’

‘Did you have much money?’

‘I’d have found it. If he’d asked. But he didn’t. For that or anything else. Anneliese was there one day. Then… ’

Three years the coming July. It might have been yesterday. Or another lifetime altogether. Tragedy occurred outside normal time, everyday conventions. It possessed a bewildering ability to fade and grow brighter simultaneously. There was no such thing as closure. That was claptrap for the counselling services. Only a pain so insistent it eventually became familiar, like toothache or the ghostly ache of a missing limb.

‘I’m fed up arguing,’ she said briskly. ‘Commissaris de Groot says he needs your help. You and him are supposed to be friends. It’s not like it’s the only thing he’s got on his mind.’

Vos growled, a habit he’d picked up from the dog, then started pedalling again. She kept up, legs pumping at a steady, leisurely pace, big boots occasionally slamming against the frame. A gawky, awkward young woman. The kind of clumping, bumbling ingénue from the provinces that Marnixstraat’s hardened city officers would pounce on and devour in an instant.

‘Of course it’s not,’ he said, making an effort to sound reasonable. ‘This is Amsterdam. How could it be?’

The houseboat was almost invisible from the road, an ugly black hulk marooned in the Prinsengracht beneath the line of the pavement. The cheapest on the market when he and Liesbeth sold the apartment, split the money, went their separate ways. It needed so much work and he couldn’t afford even half of it on the pittance of a cut-down, early retirement police pension.

‘There’s a crook called Theo Jansen in the appeal court today,’ she added. ‘According to what I hear they think he’ll go free.’

Another sudden stop. This time he forgot to reach for the dog. Sam barked testily as he was flung against the front of the wicker basket.

‘Sorry, boy,’ Vos murmured and reached out to stroke his wiry fur. ‘What?’

‘This Jansen chap’s in front of the judge this afternoon. Likelihood is he’s on his toes straight after… ’

They’d almost cycled past the place. The court lay along the Prinsengracht too, close to Leidseplein. Most of Pieter Vos’s working life, the police station, the courthouse, the cafes and brown bars of the Jordaan where he retreated to talk and think, lay within walking distance of his ramshackle houseboat.

‘If the idiots let Theo out the first thing he’ll do is start a war,’ he said. ‘Frank knows that as well as anyone. I hope he’s prepared. What in God’s name are they thinking?’

‘They don’t have much choice. You didn’t stay to finish the job, did you?’ She had a harsh and judgemental tone to her flat northern voice when she wanted. One that seemed old for her years. ‘That’s what they reckon in Marnixstraat. You quit and someone else screwed up in your place.’

A council boss’s daughter either kidnapped or demanding a ransom for herself. The city’s former gang lord about to get out of jail, looking for revenge against the Surinamese crook who’d seized his territory, the coffee shops, the brothels, the drug routes, while Jansen was in prison.

Pieter Vos could understand why his old friend was worried. ‘You’ve got a lot to say for yourself, Aspirant Bakker. Not much in the way of tact.’

She leaned closer. Pointed a long finger in his face. Chewed nails, he noticed. No polish. No make-up on her face.

‘I didn’t join the police to learn tact. De Groot told me to bring you in.’ She had green eyes, very round, a little on the large side, now gleaming with a mixture of determination and outrage. ‘That’s what I’m going to do. If I have to follow you around all day.’

He stifled a smile and pushed the bike gently forward again. ‘At the risk of repeating myself, I’m no longer a police officer.’

The boat looked dreadful in the strong spring sun. Peeling black paint. A shrivelled and desolate garden around the deck. The railings rusty. The wood rotten in places. In front of the bows, by the next mooring, a small dinghy sat half-flooded in the dank canal water, just as it did the day, almost two years before, when Vos moved in.

This casual neglect, a lack of care and worry, helped him feel easy in this quiet and leisurely part of the city. The Drie Vaten bar by the bridge to Elandsgracht. The little shops and restaurants. The people more than anything. The Jordaan was home. He couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

A portly figure strode out from the foot of the street, near the statues of Johnny Jordaan and his band. In his shabby jeans Vos never thought of himself as old. Nor did most of those he met as far as he could work out. They seemed to treat him like an odd adolescent, trapped in amber in his houseboat, listening to old rock, visiting the nearby coffee shop for a smoke from time to time, lingering over beers in the Drie Vaten.

Seeing Frank de Groot gave him pause for thought. At fortynine the boss of Marnixstraat was just ten years his senior. But he looked like a man well into middle age now, lined face, neatly clipped dark hair and tidy moustache, both too black to be real. His wan, watery eyes appeared tired and worried. A gulf had emerged between them. Vos had gone nowhere, gone backwards maybe, since he locked himself in the houseboat on the Prinsengracht. De Groot had stayed in post and that had marked him.

‘Pieter! Pieter!’ De Groot rushed up and forced a small package into Vos’s hands. ‘I thought I might catch you here.’

‘Here’s where I live, Frank. Where else would I be?’

‘Hanging round the Rijksmuseum,’ De Groot replied with a glint in his eye. ‘In the Drie Vaten eyeing up that pretty woman behind the bar. Not fixing your damned boat that’s for sure. This dinghy… ’

De Groot moaned about the half-sunken boat every time they met.

With a sudden clatter Laura Bakker turned up, shot out her long legs, slammed her heavy boots on the ground.

‘I was on my way to Marnixstraat,’ Vos said. ‘Aspirant Bakker briefed me.’ The green eyes were on him, surprised. ‘She did a good job. All the same I can’t help you.’

‘Cheese!’ De Groot patted the little package. ‘I got it from that shop you like. Kaashuis. They said it’s straight from the farm. It’s Limburger… ’

The dog was wrinkling its nose at the package.

‘You’re trying to bribe me with cheese? This is pathetic.’ De Groot nodded.

‘True. Please. Can’t we talk? Fifteen years we worked together. It’s not a lot to ask.’

The commissaris wore a fixed smile.

‘You’re looking… bohemian, Pieter. More so than ever I’d say.’

Vos climbed off the bike, lifted Sam out of the basket, found the lead in his pocket and a spare bag from the supermarket.

He extended the loop of the leash to Bakker and held out the bag.

‘You wanted a pet. Time to discover what it’s like. Clean up after him. He can’t do it for himself and there’s a fine if you leave it.’

‘I didn’t join the police force to walk dogs,’ she complained. ‘Indulge us,’ De Groot growled.

His voice could turn from amicable to threatening in an instant. She snatched the bag and the lead then bent down and cooed at Sam.

‘Don’t let him beg for food,’ Vos ordered. ‘And keep him away from other dogs. He doesn’t know he’s little.’

The two men watched Bakker chain her bike to the canal railings then wander down the canal, behind the happy, wagging tail of the proudly strutting terrier.

‘That was a dirty trick,’ Vos said. ‘What?’ De Groot asked, all innocence.

‘Sending me the office dunce and hoping I’d take pity on her.’ Vos stared at the wax paper package in his hands. ‘I hate Limburger.’

‘I’m not a cheese man, am I? She’s not a dunce, Pieter. Didn’t choose to be born in Dokkum. Kid just doesn’t fit.’ He thought for a moment then added, ‘Also I think she may believe in God.’ De Groot shook his head. ‘What the hell she’s doing here… I’m sorry. I thought she’d mess that up too. Why do you think I turned up?’

Vos lifted his bike onto the boat deck.

‘Do I have to beg?’ De Groot asked. Then he pointed to the half-sunken dinghy next to Vos’s home, the empty hull covered by a grubby tarpaulin. ‘I’ve told you a million times. You should do something about that. It’s against the law.’

Vos put his hands to his head and sighed.

‘It’s… not… my… boat. Remember?’

De Groot hopped from one foot to the other, apologetic, but only mildly.

‘Stuck next to your place like that. Looks like yours.’

‘Inside,’ Vos ordered then walked down the gangplank and threw open the tiny wooden door to his home.

4

‘De Groot wants us to go to Marnixstraat,’ Liesbeth Prins said. ‘Wim? Are you even listening?’

His office was one of the most palatial in the city hall on Waterlooplein. Long windows, a view. A feeble spring sun hung over the city beyond the window: the canal, the mansions and corporate headquarters, then the sprawling, chaotic community of De Wallen. There were more than eighty thousand people in the tightly enclosed fiefdom of central Amsterdam. Six months before, his Progressive group had seized a surprise number of seats in the elections then forged a fragile alliance with the tiny anti-EU Independence Party. And in the hard bargaining for seats that followed, Prins had won just what he wanted: the role of vicemayor, with a specific brief.

He was forty-eight, a tall, imposing, unsmiling man. Liesbeth had known him since she was a teenager, though most of her life was spent with Pieter Vos. Now he’d risen from rich city lawyer to full-time politician on the city council, and a part of her had come to wonder: was that why he needed her? To complete the picture? ‘I can’t waste more time on her games,’ Prins said flicking through one of the many reports on his desk. ‘De Groot should have better things to do. God knows—’ ‘You think she can be that heartless?’

He took hold of her hands, made her sit down. Looked into her eyes. A big man. A sad man in some ways. There was never the familiarity, the humour, the playful closeness she’d shared with Vos.

‘I know her better than you. She’s been like this ever since Bea died.’

‘Katja’s sick.’ Her voice faltered. She felt cold. Ill maybe. The black dress she’d picked that morning hung loose on her skinny frame. ‘Christ, Wim. I know you never liked the fact she wasn’t so bright. Not the star pupil. Some genius to take over your firm one day. But she’s still your daughter… ’

Prins placed the report on the desk. She saw the name on the cover in bold black letters: De Nachtwacht.

The Night Watch. The title taken from the city’s most famous painting, Rembrandt’s massive master work in the Rijksmuseum. A group of armed militia men about to patrol Amsterdam, to keep the city safe. Prins gave the same name to the key element in his election campaign the previous autumn. A promise to clean up De Wallen once and for all. No half-hearted measures any more. No compromises. From the start he’d pledged to make life unbearable for the dealers, the coffee shops, the brothels, the pimps and hookers who’d been there for decades.

No one expected him to win. But with the endless round of recession and austerity the popular mood had become febrile and unpredictable. People were looking for a change, any change. Then the Independence Party began to pick up votes on the back of suspicion about Brussels and the EU. They sensed an opportunity and joined the clamour. De Nachtwacht turned from a minor politician’s pipe dream into a hazy commitment that put him second-in-command in the council, with the one man above him, the Labour party mayor, happy to stand back from De Nachtwacht entirely and watch from a distance the developing furore about its implementation.

‘This,’ Prins said, tapping his finger on the report, ‘is more important than Katja now. I can’t help her any more. I’ve tried. But maybe someone else’s child—’

‘The police want to talk to us.’

‘You should have spoken to me before you called Marnixstraat.’

She shook her head. Ran three bony fingers through her scant, short fair hair.

‘Someone leaves a cardboard coffin outside the door. There’s a doll in it. Some hair. A bloodstain… ’

‘One more of her games… ’

‘A doll! A hank of hair. Blood.’

Prins closed his eyes for a second.

‘There’s nothing she won’t do if she needs money for dope. ’ He eyed the desk and the reports there. ‘They’re like that.’

‘Katja’s not heartless. She wouldn’t… taunt me with this.’ ‘You always see the best in people.’ His arms came away.

‘Especially when it’s not there. Stay out of it.’

‘How can I?’

He wasn’t paying attention. Wim Prins was smiling, the way he did for the public these days.

Margriet Willemsen, the pushy young woman who led the Independence Party, had opened the door. Behind her stood Alex Hendriks, head of the council’s general office. A diminutive, quiet man who seemed to live inside the sprawling council offices next to the Opera House on this open square near the heart of Amsterdam.

‘We’ve a meeting about De Nachtwacht,’ Prins said, for her benefit and theirs. ‘Call me later… ’

‘You can make time if you want,’ she insisted. ‘For Katja’s sake… ’

Still smiling he put his arm round her, whispered, ‘Tell De Groot I don’t want this in the papers. I don’t want to see her in court either when they pick her out of the gutter. We don’t need that and neither does he.’

Then, brightly, ‘Margriet. Alex.’

‘Is everything OK?’ the woman asked. ‘We didn’t mean to interrupt… ’

‘You didn’t. Sit down, please.’ The smile again. ‘Liesbeth is just leaving.’

5

The holding cells of the Prinsengracht courthouse. Basement rooms. No windows. No light. Stale, cold air.

Theo Jansen sat at a plain grey table waiting for his daughter Rosie and freedom. Fifty-nine years old, a giant of a man with the thick white beard of a fallen Santa Claus. When he was nineteen he’d started work as a bouncer for one of the Spui brothels patronized by rich foreigners, corrupt locals and the odd passing Hollywood star. The Seventies were a time of change. Drug liberalization, the consequent dope tourism and the spread of the red-light trade made the mundane profits of brothel-keeping seem tame.

Jansen was a quick apprentice, strong, fit, in the right place. He rose quickly through the gang ranks on the back of his fast fists, even temper, sharp intelligence and steadfast loyalty. Then his boss was cut down in the street during one of the periodic vendettas that gripped the Amsterdam underworld. There was no obvious successor so Theo Jansen, son of a lowly paid line worker from the Heineken brewery, stepped up for the title.

Three further executions, a flurry of generous bribes to politicians local and national, some strong-arm persuasion on the street and the old network was his. Until Pieter Vos came along.

Jansen didn’t hate cops. They had a job to do. Some could be bought. Some could be scared off. Others turned away by subtle coercion brought elsewhere. Vos, a man as relentless as he seemed invisible at times, understood no such pressure. Quietly, doggedly he worked away, chipping at the edges of the city’s criminal empires without fear, pulling in the small fry, offering them the choice between jail or turning informer.

Most chose jail, which was a wise decision. But not all.

The two men had met from time to time. Jansen liked Vos. He was an unconventional, modest man with a downbeat honesty and a fearless, perhaps foolish persistence. The city would always have police officers. Just as it would always be controlled to some extent by criminals. Might as well be one whose honesty could never be questioned.

Then the quiet detective’s world was torn apart and so, in a way Jansen still failed to understand, was his. Three years before the cop fell victim to a personal tragedy that saw him leave the police, a damaged, broken man. Not long after, tempted by Klaas Mulder, Vos’s successor, a small-time crook called Jaap Zeeger, a minnow Jansen barely knew, stood up in court and talked.

‘Liar,’ Theo Jansen spat out loud, just thinking about those weeks he spent in the dock, listening to fabrication upon fabrication. Zeeger, led on by Klaas Mulder, had put him there and still Jansen didn’t understand why.

‘Liar,’ he said again more quietly and then the door opened. Rosie, by her side Michiel Lindeman, the lawyer Jansen had used for a decade or more.

He smiled at his daughter. Thirty-two years old, her mother long gone from his life, vanished from Holland as far as anyone knew. Rosie would never abandon him. She’d stood by her old man throughout, had done since she was a teenager. Did her best to keep what remained of his empire running through a combination of strength and persuasion she’d learned from him over the years. She’d inherited his heavy physique and his outlook. A big, smiling, loud woman who never minced her words. Unlike Michiel Lindeman, a lean, humourless, middle-aged Amsterdam defence brief who’d come to make his name, and his fortune, representing crooks a few others didn’t dare touch.

‘Will I get out today, Michiel?’ Jansen asked watching them sit down.

‘All that money we’ve spent,’ Rosie said, glancing at the lawyer. ‘If Dad’s not home for supper I’ll be asking why.’

Lindeman took the hard cell chair so delicately it looked as if he feared the seat might break his thin and spindly frame. An act. This hard, unforgiving man was indestructible. Plenty had tried.

‘Well?’ Jansen asked again when he got no answer.

‘It’s up to the court. Not me.’

Lindeman always sounded bored. Odd given the money he was getting for every minute of his time.

‘We’ve got the statement from Jaap Zeeger,’ Rosie said. ‘Signed affidavit. Klaas Mulder got all that crap out of him by force. Threats. Beatings.’

‘If Vos had still been there none of this shit would have happened,’ Jansen muttered.

Lindeman laughed.

‘Vos would have got you straight. Be grateful he went crazy before he got the chance.’

Theo Jansen nodded. Before he set up on his own Michiel Lindeman was senior partner in one of the biggest city law firms. Alongside none other than Wim Prins, the new vice-mayor of the city council. The man who got into office by promising to clean up Amsterdam. That made Lindeman more valuable than ever.

‘Get me out of here,’ Jansen said. ‘Book me a meeting with your old friend Prins. We can sort things out. Reach an accommodation. He knows we’re never going away. Tell him he can trust a Dutchman. We’ll both run that Surinamese bastard out of town. Then things can be peaceful again.’

Lindeman shook his head and sighed.

‘You’re a criminal, Theo. Wim Prins can’t click his fingers and get you out. Even if he could… ’

He went quiet. ‘What?’

Lindeman stared at Rosie Jansen and said, ‘Tell him.’

She seemed uncomfortable for some reason.

‘Things are different, Dad. What was ours… maybe isn’t any more. I did my best. I’m not you. Half the men we had are with Menzo now. Those that aren’t are dead or gone.’

‘Not all of them. I get to talk to people inside. I’m not alone in there.’

‘Those people in jail are lying sons of bitches,’ she hissed. ‘Menzo’s putting words in their ugly mouths.’

Jansen could feel himself getting mad.

‘What’s lost I’ll take back. I’ve done it before.’

The lawyer looked round the room, pointed at the shadowy corners.

‘See, Theo. There you go. Talk first, think later. What if this place is wired?’

Jansen shifted on his chair, felt his big shoulders move the way they did when a fight was coming.

‘If they tapped into a private conversation between a man and his lawyer they’d never get to use it. I don’t pay you to be insulted.’ Besides, there was no mike in the room. This was Amsterdam. The courthouse. They did things properly. Carefully. Legally. The Dutch way.

‘You pay me to get you out of here,’ the lawyer replied. ‘To keep you out. If they think for one minute there’s going to be a war that won’t happen.’

‘I’m not guilty!’ Jansen slammed his heavy fist on the table. Then more quietly, ‘Not for that shit Mulder pinned on me.’

Rosie Jansen reached over and took gentle hold of his clenched fingers.

‘We know that. They do too. I want you home. I want you to stay there. You had your time—’

‘My time?’

They’d talked this through before. Reached a deal. He could see it now.

‘You’ve got enough legitimate businesses to keep you comfortable for the rest of your life,’ Lindeman said in a dry, tired tone. ‘Rich and safe. Zeeger’s affidavit doesn’t make you innocent. The best we can hope for is release on bail on the basis of an unsafe conviction. You need to give them something that will get us an appeal. I want to be able to say in private you’re out of De Wallen. Menzo’s taken most of the firms you ran there anyway—’

‘Stolen!’ Jansen bellowed. ‘Thieved behind my back while I was rotting in jail on some trumped-up—’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ his daughter cut in. ‘It’s happened. You can’t turn back the clock. No one can.’

‘I’m your father, Rosie. Don’t you know me?’

Her warm hand tightened on his. Her dark eyes shone at him, pleading.

‘You can’t. If you try they’ll put you back in prison. Me too maybe. It’s not just Wim Prins on our backs now. The government’s coming down on us. Times are changing. They won’t let things pass the way they did.’

‘Throw them some money. That usually works.’ Lindeman shook his head.

‘A lot’s happened in two years. Change of party since you went inside. Change of mood. Not just in the council. Everything we grew up with’s falling to pieces. You’re a dinosaur, Theo. Time to get out of the way before the comet hits.’

Jansen blinked.

‘You think I’ll just roll over and let Jimmy Menzo have it all?’ Lindeman shrugged.

‘If you want to go home and live with your daughter. Enjoy your money. Forget about how things were before. They’re gone for good.’

Rosie smiled at him, looking the way she did when she was five, ten years old. His daughter could always wind him round her little finger and she knew it.

‘That’s what you came to tell me? That I’m an old man and I’m out of it?’

‘Pretty much,’ Lindeman agreed. ‘I’m a lawyer. Not a miracle worker.’

They waited for him to say something. ‘I’ll think about it.’

Rosie wasn’t smiling any more.

‘I said I’ll think about it,’ Jansen repeated.

‘We’ve got a pre-hearing meeting fixed this morning, Dad. They want an answer before it comes in front of the judge.’

‘The court needs to know now,’ Lindeman added. ‘A commitment. A—’

‘A piece of paper?’ Jansen snapped. ‘You want me to sign that? I, Theo Jansen, relinquish all my rights—’

‘We don’t have any rights.’ Her voice was stern and rising. ‘We don’t have anything. We’re screwed. Let’s try and get out of this with a little dignity.’

There were tears welling in her solemn dark eyes and he always hated that.

‘I want you home,’ she said again in a voice so soft and gentle it belied her looks. ‘I want us to enjoy things together. That place you bought in Spain. We never went there. Not once. All the things we never had time for… ’

Jansen leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling, the bleak, windowless walls. In his mind he could see the city outside. April. Soon the new herring would be here. He could grab a beer in a brown bar, walk to a canal-side stall, dangle a sliver of raw fish over his mouth, down it like a Pelican the way he did when Rosie was a kid and he wanted to make her laugh. You weren’t supposed to do that in Amsterdam. It was common. But so was he. And she always giggled when he did it. That was enough.

Freedom wasn’t something intangible. It had a taste. You could touch it, smell it. A fifteen-year sentence, ten inside if he was lucky, wasn’t punishment. It was an execution of a kind, cruel and deliberate.

‘You need to say it now,’ Rosie insisted. ‘Michiel has to tell them. If he doesn’t there won’t be a hearing. You go back to jail. And I go home alone. Dad, if you won’t do it for yourself, just do it for me, will you?’


Excerpted from The House of Dolls by David Hewson. Copyright © 2014 by David Hewson.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, 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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