Finally, finally, finally, finally.
Felt-tipped, to stop myself doing damage to myself. To stop myself doing damage to somebody else.
It is very difficult to describe how they feel in the hand. I have not held a pen for a long time. I am taking an age to complete each word. I put myself off by watching my hand so closely that it becomes self-conscious and forgets how to shape the simplest letters.
I have been having the same trouble with my voice.
Sometimes days go by and I do not say a word. I am afraid of talking to myself. Sometimes I hear other voices shuffling past and they sound like mad voices. I do not want to sound like this.
When I do decide to talk to myself I make sure that what I say is ordered and sensible. ‘Today I shall do three hundred press-ups before lunch and five hundred press-ups after lunch,’ I might tell myself. Or, ‘This morning I shall run through the Lord’s Prayer, the General Confession, all the hymns I know and every capital city I can remember.’ And I remind myself out loud that I must not despair if I forget. Frustration and disappointment are the enemy, I have found. Some time ago I forgot the capital of India. It seems stupid, but for the longest time I was weeping and screaming, punching myself on the chest and wrenching at my hair so violently that it came out in bloody knots, and all because I could not remember the capital of India. Then, for no reason I can be sure of, I woke up one morning with ‘New Delhi’ on my lips. It had caused me such misery and pain, its absence, that I was almost angry to have remembered it, and for it to be such a simple place-name too. I know that the forgetting, even for a few days, had done more than make me miserable: it had given me spots and constipation and utter despair. I decided that in the future I would laugh and smile when I forgot even the simplest thing.
There was a time, for example, perhaps a year ago, when I forgot the name of my biology master at school. I laughed with pleasure. I actually made myself laugh with pleasure at the idea that my brain had buried Dr Sewell below the surface. Why should New Delhi or Dr Sewell be instantly available to me here? This way of dealing with memory has actually helped. Now that I am not forcing myself to remember, or judging myself by my ability to remember, all kinds of things actually stand out more clearly. I could sit down tomorrow, I think, and pass all my exams with ease. Mind you, looking up at the first two pages I have covered, I would have to admit that any examiner would disqualify me on the grounds of the illegibility of my handwriting. And of course, I know now that Dr Sewell was not my biology master at school. He and my school were imagined.
It is very interesting to look back up at what I have written. I notice that I keep trying to double letters. I even started to spell ‘disqualify’ with two Qs. I wonder what that means. I have a sense that it is something to do with a fear of finishing things too quickly. I have learned to eke everything out here. Each spoonful of food, each push-up, press-up, sit-up or organised room-walk that I undertake is very rigorously planned and very thoroughly thought through. Oh! Doesn’t that look wonderful! Thoroughly thought through!
… thoroughly thought through…
Oh goodness, the beauty of it! I never noticed how language looked on the page before. To foreign eyes that phrase must reek of English. I have spent huge epochs of time rolling words around in my tongue and throat for the pleasure of their sounds, but never, never before has it occurred to me that words might, even in my dreadful handwriting, look so beautiful and so eternally fine.
‘Thoroughly thought through’
I think what it
Well, I am looking at the paper I have covered and putting off the moment of writing coherently and consequently about myself and my situation for fear that I will do it too quickly and that the day might come when I find that my writing has caught up with my present and that I will have nothing more to report.
Writing it all down chronologically will make me confront everything in a very different way I think. In my head and my mind, alone in this room, my life has become nothing more than a peculiar sort of game. Like any game it can be amusing and it can be deeply upsetting. On paper I suspect that it will take on the quality of a
I will begin with time. I have taken, I think, five hours to write this much. I base all my calculations on shadows and food and counting. I have assumed that breakfast comes at eight o’clock. It doesn’t really matter if it is eight o’clock or seven or nine, all that matters is the
So, let us say that breakfast is eight. If that is true then lunch is half past twelve. I know this, for I have counted the whole stretch of time between breakfast and lunch many times. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi and so on. That was a very dark period: over the course of many many days and weeks I would lose count somewhere and the failure would set me weeping for the rest of the day. I began to believe that I was losing count deliberately because I did not want to be a master of time again. The day did come, however, when I had perfected the art of counting without
16,200. It doesn’t really seem like that much when I write it down. Sixteen thousand two hundred. Does it seem more written in words or figures? Believe me, when you count them out, one by one, it seems to take hours. Well, it does take hours of course. Four and a half of them.
There is a single high window in this room and on the other side of it (I have jumped up when trampolining on the bed) there is a tree which I call my larch. I never really knew a larch from an oak at any time, but I think larches are tall and my tree is tall, so therefore it may as well be a larch. On winter days when the sun is low I can see its shadow move across the ceiling. I ought to be able to calculate a great deal from this, but I don’t know enough about the sun and the earth. I do know that when I start to see the shadows summer is over and the long winter is about to begin and that when the shadows fade away it is spring and the endless summer is close at hand.
I have attempted, as you might imagine, to count the days and weeks, but something is stopping me. I tried once to mark them off against the wall, using my fingernails but the act of it soon filed them down and I wasn’t able to continue. They always take back the plastic cutlery and I am sure that if I were to mark the walls with my felt-tipped pens they would be permanently confiscated. I could start now on the paper, with the prisoner’s traditional rows of soldiers and a line through them to mark the week, but the truth is, I don’t want to know how much time has passed. I cannot tell you how many winters and summers there have been. Sometimes I think it is three, sometimes as many as five.
There was a time when I thought I could detect when it was Sunday. There would be a brightness outside and an atmosphere inside that made me sure of it. The echo of footsteps seemed to ring differently in the corridors, which I suppose sounds mad. I would say to whoever brought in the food, usually Rolf or Martin, ‘Happy Sunday!’ but there was never any response. Once Martin, who for a short time I had decided was nicer than Rolf, said, ‘It is Wednesday today,’ and that upset me greatly for some reason.
I was moved into this room when my shoulders had mended. I have almost forgotten the first room, which might be a kind of mercy. I had been strapped to the bed there and was at almost my lowest point. Rolf would not speak to me. Dr Mallo would not come. My memories tormented me more than the pain. I still believed that it was all soon to end, you see. I thought that the father of my dreams would come and set me free, that the terrible misunderstanding was shortly to come to an end. I know better now. Dr Mallo has explained that this is my home and that I have no other. I have been ill. My mind has been full of false memories which only time can dispel. If I am slow with myself and patient I will be able to see things more clearly.
I am a very sick young man. I am a fantasist who has chosen to invent a history for himself which does not belong to him. A feeling of personal inadequacy has led me to believe that I once possessed a life of ease and affection and respect. I imagined that I was a happy, adjusted and popular boy with a famous and important father and a contented existence at a well-known public school. This is, apparently, very common. Many unfortunate children choose to inhabit a world like this rather than confront the reality of their lives. It is difficult for me because the fantasy was so real that I have burned out of my memory the real life into which I was actually born. I just cannot recapture or imagine it, no matter how hard I try. My assumed identity is so strong a part of me that even now, knowing the truth, I cannot fully let go of it. Dr Mallo tells me that mine is almost the strongest and most intractable case he has dealt with in all his professional life and this helps. It is hard not to feel a little proud.
The more able I am to accept the truth the easier my life here becomes. The paper and felt-tipped pens are a result of a ‘breakthrough’ that occurred some time ago. I see Dr Mallo every now and then. Perhaps these sessions are regular, once a fortnight, or once every ten days, it is hard to tell. Eight or nine visits ago I broke down and admitted to him that I knew I was not called Ned and that everything I thought had been my memory was indeed false, as he had been telling me for so long. Perhaps he thought I was saying this to please him, for at first nothing changed. In fact he was quite severe with me, accusing me of pretending to agree with him just to make life easier for myself. After a few visits however, he told me that I had made a genuine breakthrough and that this meant I could be trusted with a few privileges. I asked if that meant I might be allowed to read some books. Books will come later, he told me, for they can be dangerous to those with a frail grip on reality. Firstly, it would be a good idea for me to have some paper and pens and to write down everything I felt. If Dr Mallo trusted that I was really coming to grips with my situation, I might then start to visit the library.
What about other patients? Would it be possible for me to join in with them? I had noted evening and afternoon periods marked by an electric bell and always connected with the distant sounds of doors opening and closing, feet shuffling and sometimes a little laughter.
Dr Mallo congratulated me on my observation and held out the hope that one day I would be balanced and strong enough to associate with others without danger to myself. In the meantime, it was important for me to grow healthier in my mind. He is pleased that I have the self-respect that keeps me physically fit and hopes I will be able to set myself mental exercises that are the equivalent of the bench-presses and sit-ups with which I test my physical self.
So now I shall take everything very slowly and not allow myself to become too excited. I must not exaggerate any apparent improvement, for if I am honest, I have to confess that in my sleeping moments, and even sometimes when I am awake, the echoes of the old false memories still fill my mind like seductive ghosts. It will be of no use to me at all if I am over-optimistic about my condition. There is still a very long way to go.
I hear the squeak of the trolley outside. It will soon be time for my medication and supper. I must set down my pens, square the paper neatly on the table and sit up straight. I would not want Dr Mallo to hear that I have been overheated or undisciplined.
This has been a wonderful and encouraging day.
‘So now, Ned my friend, how are you today?’
‘I’m very well, Dr Mallo, but I wonder if I can ask you something?’
‘Of course. You know that you can ask me anything you please.’
‘I think it’s wrong that you still call me Ned.’
‘We have talked of this before. I am very happy to call you what pleases you. Have you perhaps another name for me? A remembered name?’
Ned wrinkled his brow at this. ‘Well, sometimes I think I might be Ashley.’
‘You would like me to call you Ashley?’
‘I don’t think so. It isn’t quite right. I’m sure that I do remember an Ashley and that I think of him with someone like me. I associate the name Ashley with pretending to be something you aren’t, but it’s all a little confused. I don’t think Ashley is me. I was hoping you might think up a name. My real name may come back to me soon, but in the meantime, anything you give me is better than Ned. The name Ned is beginning to annoy me.
‘Very well. I shall call you…’ Dr Mallo looked around the room as if expecting to light upon an object that would offer a connection to a suitable name. ‘I shall call you
‘Thomas …’ Ned repeated the name with pleasure. ‘Thomas…’ he said again, with the delight of a child unwrapping a present. ‘Thomas is very good, doctor. Thank you. I like that very much.’
‘So we shall call you Thomas,’ said Dr Mallo, ‘but I need to believe that you understand the name. It is an escape from Ned, a symbol, we shall say, of a new beginning. It is important you are realistic with this name and do not imagine that Thomas has a past into which you may retreat. It is a name we have conjured up together here for convenience and to mark your progress. Nothing more.
‘So now, Thomas my young friend. How have you been?’
‘I think I’ve been well,’ said Ned. ‘I’ve been very happy lately.’
The sound of the new name in his ears was wonderful, it released a feeling to be hoarded and treasured in his room later. ‘Hello there, Thomas.’ ‘Thomas, good to see you. ‘Oh look, there’s Thomas!’ ‘Good old Thomas…
‘And at last,’ said Dr Mallo, looking at a tall sheaf of paper in front of him, the trace of a smile on his lips. ‘I am beginning to be able to read your writing without great effort.’
‘You are growing quite a beard now. Does it bother you?’
‘Well,’ Ned’s hand went to his face. ‘It has taken some getting used to. It itches and it must look very odd, I suppose.
‘No, no. Why should it look odd? A beard is a most natural thing.’
‘You would like to see yourself in your beard?’
‘May I? May I really?’ Ned’s legs started to jog up and down on the balls of his feet.
‘I do not see why not.’
Dr Mallo opened a drawer in his desk and brought out a small hand-mirror which he passed across to Ned, who took it and held it on his jiggling knees, face turned away.
‘You are afraid to look?’
‘I’m – I’m not sure.
‘Set your heels to the floor and take some deep breaths. One-two-three, one-two-three.’
Ned’s knees stopped their jogging and he moved his head. He lifted the mirror from his lap, swallowed twice and slowly opened his eyes.
‘What do you think?’
Ned was looking at a face that he did not know. The face stared back at him in equal surprise and horror. It was a gaunt face, a face of hard cheekbones and deep-set eyes. The straw-coloured hair on its head was long, hanging lankly over the ears, the beard hair seemed coarser and tinged with a suggestion of red. Ned put a hand to his own face, and saw a bony hand rubbing the beard line of the face in the mirror and pulling at its moustache.
‘You like this face?’
Ned tried to avoid meeting the eyes in the mirror. They were resentful and coldly blue. They seemed to dislike him.
‘Who is he?’ Ned cried. ‘Who is this man? I don’t know him!’
The face in the mirror had tears streaking its beard. It licked its cracked lips. Its mouth pursed in disgust at the face of Thomas looking in.
‘That is enough. Give me the mirror now.
‘Who is he? He hates me! Who is he? Who is he? That isn’t me! Is it Thomas? It isn’t Ned. Who is it?’
Dr Mallo pressed a buzzer on the underside of his desk and sighed. Foolish of him to have tried such an experiment. A distasteful display, yet fascinating also. Such pitiable distress, such complete dislocation of subject. Mallo’s student dissertation on the work of Piaget came back to him. If he were still a man of academic energy there could be a paper in this. But Mallo’s days of professional ambition were behind him. He watched Rolf come into the room, wrestle the mirror away and snap bracelets on the boy’s wrists with the methodical efficiency that never deserted him.
‘Calm yourself, Thomas. You see now I hope that there is still a long way for you to go. We will allow you a period of calm for a while. No more writing for the time being, just peaceful reflection. Chlorpromazine,’ he added to Rolf, ‘75 milligrams, I think.’
Ned’s eyes were fixed on the hand-mirror which lay face down on the desk. He was not aware of Rolf pulling up his sleeve. His mind was filled only with a desire to see that haggard face once more and to tear its malevolent eyes from their sockets.
There were special days that came very rarely, days when the food was piled high on Ned’s tray and flower vases and bowls filled with fresh fruit were placed on his table. In the mornings Martin and Rolf would lead him out of the room and stand him under a shower at the end of the corridor. They would hold him there and sponge him clean. Then, still under the shower-head, but with the flow of water turned off, they would cut his hair and shave his beard. His room too, when he returned to it, would have been scrubbed clean and washed. The chamber pot would have gone and the sweet scent of pine room-freshener would hang in the air.
In the afternoons of these extraordinary days Dr Mallo would visit him, together with two others, a man and a woman who did not wear white coats and who brought the atmosphere of the outside world into the room with them. The woman’s handbag and the man’s briefcase fascinated Ned. They bore flavours and smells that were intriguing, enchanting and frightening too.
They all spoke to each other in a language that Ned could not understand, the same language that Rolf and Martin spoke and that he had decided long ago was Scandinavian. He heard his name mentioned in those conversations, always as Thomas now, they never used the name Ned any more.
The woman liked to talk to him sometimes.
‘Do you remember me?’ she would ask, in thickly accented English.
‘Yes, how are you?’ Ned would reply.
‘But how are
‘Oh, I am much better thank you. Much better.’
‘Are you happy here?’
‘Very happy thank you. Yes. Very happy indeed.’
One day in summer they came again, but this time there were three of them. The same couple as before but with another woman, younger than the other, and a great deal more inquisitive. Ned picked up Dr Mallo’s tension at her questions and did his best to say what he thought the doctor expected and wanted of him.
‘How long have you been here, Thomas?’ This new woman’s English was better even than Dr Mallo’s and she spoke to Ned very directly. The others used to ask him questions politely, but never with the impression that they were especially interested in his answers. This woman seemed very curious about Ned and paid great attention to the way he replied.
‘How long?’ Ned looked towards Dr Mallo. ‘I’m not sure how long…’
‘Don’t look at the doctor,’ said the woman, ‘I want to know how long
‘It’s a little hard to tell. Perhaps three or four years. Maybe a bit longer?’
The woman nodded. ‘I see. And your name is Thomas, I believe?’
Ned nodded enthusiastically. ‘Absolutely.’
‘But when you first came here, your name was Ned.’
Ned found that he did not like to hear that name. ‘I was in a bit of a state then,’ he said. ‘I needed to clear up a lot of the ideas in my head. I had been imagining all kinds of things.’
‘Have you made friends with the other patients?’
Dr Mallo started to speak to the young woman, she listened for a while and spoke back at him rapidly. Ned imagined that he heard some words that were a little like the English words ‘Better’ and ‘Hysteria.
It was strange to see how small Dr Mallo looked, and how afraid he was of this young woman. His head was on one side as he listened to her, and he nodded and smiled, passing his tongue quickly over his lips and making notes on the clipboard he carried with him. It was something more than the woman’s height that made him look so small beside her Ned thought, even though she was nearly a foot taller than him. His whole demeanour reminded Ned of how he tried to look when he was doing his best to please Rolf or even Dr Mallo himself.
The woman turned to Ned. ‘The doctor tells me that you have chosen not to associate with any other patients since you have been here?’
‘I… I don’t think I have been ready.’
The woman raised her eyebrows. ‘Why not?’
Ned knew that he must not look to Dr Mallo for prompting or encouragement. It would please him more if he showed that he could think for himself.
‘I wanted to be more confident in myself, if you see what I mean. I didn’t want to lie to anyone about who I was. Also,’ he added, ‘I only speak English and I’ve not wanted to have the problem of being misunderstood.’ That last idea came to him from nowhere and he hoped that Dr Mallo would be pleased at his inventiveness.
There followed another flurry of conversation in which the other woman and her companion joined. Dr Mallo nodded his head decisively and made some more notes. Ned could see that he was trying hard to appear pleased.
‘I will see you again soon, Thomas,’ said the young woman. ‘I hope that the company of some English speaking people will be helpful for you. Will you promise me to try and talk to other patients? Just one or two to start with. Under supervision in case you become nervous. I think you will enjoy it.’
Ned nodded and did his best to look brave and resolute. ‘Good.’ She looked around the room. ‘You do not have any books here, I see.’
‘I have been writing again,’ said Ned almost defensively. ‘I have written some poems actually.’
‘No doubt you will write better poems if you have the chance to read. Books are always healthy. Goodbye, Thomas. I will see you on my next visit and I expect to see you with books in here. We will talk about what you have read and what friends you have made.’
That evening, when Martin came with his supper and to take away the fruit bowl and the vase of flowers, Ned almost whined at him.
‘That woman said I had to talk to other people. Is it true? I don’t want to. I want to be left on my own. Tell Dr Mallo that I don’t want to meet anyone. Especially not English people.’
‘You do as Doctor tells. If Doctor wants you meet other people, you are meeting other people,’ Martin replied. ‘Not matter if English or not English. Not your choosing. For Doctor to choosing. And here, look.’ Martin dropped an enormous English encyclopaedia onto the floor beside the bed. ‘You will read.’
Ned smiled himself to sleep that night. The lost memory came to him of a kind old man reading the
Babe glanced up from the chessboard as Martin led a reluctant patient through the glazed partition and into the sun-room.
Smooth-shaven from yesterday’s official visit, Babe noticed. Another bloody Scandiwegian by the look of the blue eyes and flaxen hair. Frightened eyes they are. Mind you, fake-frightened perhaps. Wary and alert under the guise of compliance and the fog of Thorazine. I know that look well enough. Our man has been here a while and a day, I can see that. Knows how to play it safe. Now why have they kept him from us? What will be
Babe dropped his eyes to the chessboard and set up a high-droned mumble over the pieces.
‘Ah, and you’d try a semi-Slav on me, would you, you whore-master dog? I know a few ways to beat
‘You sit here,’ Martin said to the young man.
Speaks to him in
Babe almost gave away his interest by sitting up and looking across in their direction.
Calm down there, the Babe. There’s many a reason for Martin to be speaking in English. The boy may yet be Finn, Flem or Hollander. No certainty that he’s a Brit from Britland. It don’t pay to go leaping to conclusions. The lingua franca of all ritzy international institutions is English. Spoken in every high class bank, brothel and lunatic asylum from here to the Balkans.
The young man had sat down and was now trying to stand.
Why don’t you
Babe’s eyes were flicking from one chess man to another, his fingers pulling at his loose lips. No one would suppose that he knew that any world existed outside the sixty-four squares in front of him, certainly it would be impossible to guess that all his attention was on this awkward new arrival into the world of the sun-room.
Martin moved about, looking at the other patients while his patient fretted on his plastic chair.
‘May I go now please?’ the young man whined at last.
Angels and ministers of Grace defend us! More than a Brit.
Winchester, Eton or Harrow?
Not Winchester, I believe. Too polite.
Eton? I think not. Doesn’t quite have the carriage. That would never quit an Etonian, not even here. That leaves us Harrow. Semper floreat herga.
‘Babe, I’ve got someone for you to meet.’ Martin stood over the board and spoke in Swedish. ‘Don’t want to meet anyone,’ Babe muttered in the same language, clumsily enacting an exchange over the board and letting the pieces topple over. ‘Leave me alone.’
‘Never mind what you want, old man. His name is Thomas. You can teach him to play chess.’
Ned bent down and picked up a black bishop from the floor. Babe snatched it back and banged it on the board without looking at him.
‘Sit down and play at chess,’ Martin ordered Ned. ‘This is Babe. He is our oldest guest. Here before Dr Mallo even, is that right, Babe?’
‘Here before you were a watery drop of seed down your sinful father’s leg, you miserable perverted gobshite cunt,’ murmured Babe resetting the white queen with great care.
‘What’s that? What he saying?’
‘He says that he has indeed been here a long time,’ said Ned. ‘Look, Martin, do I have to talk to him? Can’t I please go back to my room? Or be on my own at least?’
‘You talk,’ said Martin. ‘I come back lunchtime. Sit down. You talk. You play chess. Be nice on each other.’
There was silence at the table for almost a minute as Babe set up the pieces and Ned sat down and concentrated on looking miserable.
Over Babe’s shoulder he could see a lawn that sloped down from the sun-room. At the bottom was a line of trees, whose thickness suggested the possibility of a river. There were other patients outside, sitting on benches and walking. That all this was possible amazed him.
The brightness of the room and the smell of other people mingled with the sour odour of sunlight on vinyl were intoxicating to Ned. He could feel Martin’s distrustful eyes upon him somewhere so he did not allow himself to appear eager for conversation, instead he slouched sulkily and glared down at the chessmen as if they were enemies.
What the old man, Babe, if Ned had heard right, had said right under Martin’s nose had thrilled him beyond imagining. He had called him a miserable perverted gobshite cunt and trusted to the slur in his voice and speed in his delivery to obscure the meaning. He might be a mad and ugly old man, but he was certain to be more entertaining than a lonely room.
‘That’s the ticket, old son,’ said the old man suddenly. His eyes were down on the table and he spoke in a mumble, but the words came clear to Ned’s ears. ‘You ye worked Martin out. The more browned off you look, the better he likes it. Don’t talk back to me right off, rest a hand on your chin to hide your lips and keep that spoilt, petulant look going. You do it to a turn.’
Ned’s heart began to beat more quickly. He put his elbow on the table and pushed his mouth into the upturned cup of his palm.
‘Are you English?’
‘Devil a bit I am.
‘Is Martin looking?’
‘Standing there with a cup of coffee in his hand gazing at the back of your head with a frown on him like an angry turd-wasp. Turned down his bedroom advances, did you, lad? No, no. There’s no call to go pink. He tries it on with all the new patients. Are you going to make a move? You’re not going to tell me they didn’t teach you chess at Harrow?’
Ned gasped and could not stop himself from looking up.
Babe was plucking his lips and staring down at the chessboard as if nothing had been said. He mumbled through his dribble in a sing-song. ‘It was wrong of me to spring it onto you like that. I’m a devil of a show-off and you’ll have to forgive me. But if Professor Higgins can do it, why not the Babe? Eyes down and make a move, you pampered Asiatic jade.’
Ned pushed forward a pawn and resumed his previous position, hand concealing mouth. ‘How could you possibly know? I mean… not that I
‘Calm yourself right down, young Thomas. Let’s not be rushing like a bull at the gate of a china shop. Or any kind of bull at all, whether at a gate, in a shop, or rising from the sea to rapine and lust. You’ll get used to my mad ways with metaphor and allusion in time. Just remember this, if we manage ourselves aright here today and for the next few days as well, then Martin there will leave us be and happy enough in himself to do so. He knows me for a mad old, strange old, harmless old, comic old, disgusting old man, but you he does not trust or like. He and Rolfie, they see it as their job to protect this institution from the foolish liberal credulity of the good Dr Mallo. If you have been allowed out to socialise, it’s because of the new girl who came visiting yesterday, or am I wrong?’
‘No, that’s right!’ Ned breathed.
‘Well now – dear God, you’ve a lot to learn about chess, young monkey. Have you never heard of a fork? – well now, I thought that must be so. She had reformer and new broom stitched into her milken breasts. Mallo and the staff will be madder than the maddest amongst us to have her interfere. If you’ve not been out to talk to us yet, there’ll be a reason and they won’t like being overruled by a liberal doxy with modern doctrines about her. Who put you away in this place?’
Ned was silent.
‘You not want to talk about it? I’ll never force you, boy.’
‘No, it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t know.’
‘Well, how long have you been here?’
‘I…’ Ned did not know what to say.
‘Easy to lose time. Do you have an inkling of the date it was when you were last a free man?’
‘It was July the thirtieth. But I was ill … I thought all kinds of things. I shouldn’t really be thinking of that time. It holds me back. Dr Mallo told me that I had to forget all those associations, they are delusions
‘Delusions are the one things you may trust in here. July thirtieth, eh? And what year?’
‘Nineteen eighty,’ said Ned, excitement beginning to build in him, ‘and what’s more Thomas isn’t my name. My real name is
‘I don’t want to know. Not just yet. If they’ve changed your name, you don’t want to be heard telling me the old one. Make a move, go on. Make a move now. Try and get that poor bishop out of the shit, if you can.
Ned looked down at the chess pieces swimming beneath him.
‘I can call you Babe?’
‘Certainly you can call me Babe, and what pleasure it will give me to answer to the name spoken in a voice so fine and so true. And the first thing that Babe will do for Thomas, when we have convinced our keepers that it was their idea to force us together, is he will teach him to play a proper game of schach, ?cheques, shachmatyin, chess, scacchi… call it what you will, for you’ve a dismal idea of it at the moment, you young lummock. Checkmate with knobs on.’
‘I never really knew much more than the rules, I’m afraid.’
‘I shall set the pieces up again, and you will turn away. Droop all languid like a listless lily in Lent. You’re bored with me and you find me osmically offensive, which is to say you think I stink like the stinkiest stinkweed that was. But before you turn away, answer me something.’
‘How long is it that you believe you’ve been here?’
‘Well, I don’t know the year now, but it must be … I don’t know. Three years? Four?’
‘It is ten, Thomas my friend. Ten years next month.’
‘Not so loud! And keep your eyes ever cast downwards. Today is, by the Grace of God, the eighteenth of June in the year nineteen ninety.’
‘But it can’t be anything
‘I hate to be the one to tell you, Thomas, but you look nearer thirty-seven or forty-seven. There’s grey mixed in your hair by the temples and those eyes of yours do not contain at all the look of youth. Ah now, he’s glaring over at us. Turn and look away.’
Martin came towards Ned, a meanly sarcastic smile on his face. ‘This was quick game. You no good for chess? You letting mad old man beat you?’
Ned shook his head.
‘I don’t like him,’ he said, gesturing towards the mumbling Babe. ‘He smells.’
‘You come and play and talk with Babe every day. Every day one hour longer. Is good for you each.’
‘No but. No but. You make complaint and I have you two together all the time. Share room maybe? You like that? You like share your room with smelling old man?’
‘I won’t,’ said Ned, outraged. ‘I won’t! You can’t make me!’
Over the next eight weeks Ned went to his room with small scraps of paper hidden about him. On them were written all the chess theory, attacks, defences, gambits, combinations and end game strategies that Babe knew. His course of instruction began with games played by Phillidor and Morphy and masterpieces of the romantic age, games that, like paintings, had titles: titles like The Evergreen, the Two Dukes and the Immortal. Ned was moved from these towards the age of Steinitz and the modern style, then to an understanding of a positional theory called the Hypermodern that made his head ache. Next came an induction into opening play and counter play whose language made Ned laugh. The Caro Kann and the Queen’s Indian, the Sicilian and the French Defences, the Gioco Piano and the Ruy Lopez. The Dragon variation, the Tartakower and the Nimzowitch. The Queen’s Gambit Declined and the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. The Marshall Attack. The Maroczy Bind. The Poisoned Pawn.
‘We shan’t be friends until we can play a game of chess together. You have it in you to play a decent game. Everyone has it in them to play a decent game. It’s nothing but memory and a refusal to think of yourself as a mental rabbit. If a soul can read and write, a soul can play a game of chess.’
There was so much Ned wanted to ask Babe, but any questions were waved aside over the board.
‘Chess lad. Pressing lidless eyes, we will play a game of chess. Your move, and watch your back rank.’
Dr Mallo had paid a visit to the sun-room during Ned’s first week there and ordered Babe away for a turn on the lawn.
‘I want to talk to my friend Thomas. I shall not move the pieces,’ the doctor had assured Babe, who shuffled away mumbling oaths into his beard.
‘So, how are you finding it, Thomas?’
‘It’s a little strange,’ said Ned uncertainly. ‘He’s a very peculiar man and I don’t really understand much he says. He can be very rude, but as long as I don’t talk too much he doesn’t seem to mind me.’
‘Have you talked to any other patients, I wonder?’
‘I try to sometimes,’ said Ned. ‘I don’t know which of them speak English. I upset that man over there yesterday by taking a chair that was next to him and he swore at me in English.’
‘Yes, that is Dr Michaels, a very unhappy man. You will never derive much sense from him I fear. Unstable, but not dangerous. I am pleased, Thomas, that you are able to sit out here. And Babe is not – ‘ Dr Mallo looked down at the chessboard with what Ned could instinctively tell were uncomprehending eyes, ‘- Babe is not
‘He doesn’t ask me anything,’ said Ned in a disappointed voice, ‘except when I’m going to make a move or why I bounce my knees up and down under the table.’
‘Ha! I ask, you understand, because it is so important that you are not encouraged into more fantasy concerning yourself. If anyone were to ask who you were and what is the nature of your illness …
‘I don’t know what I would say, Doctor. I would tell them that my name is Thomas and that I am getting better. I prefer not to talk about myself.’
‘Quite so. He plays a good game of chess, Babe?’
‘I think not, you have a checkmate in four moves if you look closely,’ said Dr Mallo rising and taking his leave with a brisk and satisfied nod of his head.
‘Mate in four moves, my arse and the arse of every man here!’ Babe had hissed under his breath when Ned reported the conversation to him. ‘The bullshit of the man, the fraud and fakery of him. If you don’t move up your h pawn you’ll be the one to be mated and in one move, never mind four.’
‘When can we talk of anything except chess, Babe?’
‘When you have beaten me.
‘But that’s never!’
‘Don’t you believe it. I’ve written out the Nimzo-Indian for you today. You’ll love it.’
As the weeks passed, Ned found himself becoming more and more obsessed by their games. He fell asleep each night with the diagonal tensions and energetic force-fields exerted by each piece pressing against his mind. Chess and the power of each man on the board dominated his inner life. He began to replay positions easily in his head, without having to picture the whole board. His questions, now solely confined to chess, began to please Babe.
‘Ah now. You’re confusing strategy with tactics there. That’s a thing that reminds me of my old lessons in military training. The strategy, you see, is the battle plan, the Big Idea. We will win the battle by taking that hill. There’s your strategy, to take the hill.
It was only later that Ned, all absorbed in the detail of chess, turned his mind to the remark ‘my old lessons in military training’. A man of Babe’s age had probably fought in the war. The Second World War. When Ned had first asked him if he was English, Babe had replied ‘Devil a bit I am,’ which Ned took to mean an emphatic negative. Babe’s voice however, in accent and delivery, was very English indeed, a rich fruity and deliciously old-fashioned sounding English that reminded Ned of old wireless broadcasts. The
Meanwhile, two months into his training, Ned had an exciting week ahead of him. He had, for the first time,
The following day, Babe playing black had won easily and Ned, furious with himself, made assiduous plans that night to do something magnificent the next day.
He fell asleep with an idea in his mined that he should try the Winawer variation of the French Defence, which some instinct told him Babe did not enjoy playing. He awoke with a fully formed sense of how to win implanted in his mind. The plan involved not only the absolute chess of the game but psychology too and when Rolf, whose duty day it was, led him out to the sun-porch, he was already looking grouchy and underslept.
‘I shouldn’t have lost like that yesterday,’ he said, without offering any of his usual polite greetings. ‘You trapped me. It was pathetic.’
‘Dear me,’ said Babe straightening the white pieces in front of him. ‘Did we get out of bed the wrong side this morning?’
‘Let’s just play,’ said Ned moodily, inwardly praying that Babe’s king pawn would advance but staring instead at the c-pawn, as if hoping for an English opening or deferred Queen’s Indian.
With a shrug, Babe played e-4 and Ned instantly replied by pushing his own king’s pawn forward to meet it. Babe moved his knight out to f-3 and Ned moved a hand to his queen’s knight, as if resigned to an Italian or Spanish game. Then he dropped the hand back with a resentful tut and started to think. He took five minutes over his second move, the dull, seemingly ultra-defensive and amateurish d-6 that marks the French Defence. Babe continued to rattle out his pieces in the standard way and Ned haltingly replied. His heart beat faster and faster as each move repeated the pattern that he had planned the night before, developing into the very line of the Winawer that he had prepared. A moment came when Babe had to play with extreme accuracy to avoid a trap that Ned knew would cost him the loss of an active pawn. Babe stopped himself from playing the quick and obvious move and Ned, his head down, could sense in his field of peripheral vision, that Babe’s head had turned up to look at him. Ned did not shift, but continued to frown over the board, not revealing anything when Babe, avoiding the mistake, played the only correct move possible. Ned had not banked everything on a cheap tactical trap as he might have done two weeks earlier. In fact, he would have been disappointed if Babe had fallen for it. He knew that his position was good, and that was all that counted.
After an hour of fraught and completely silent play, Babe found himself a pawn down and having to marshal unconnected pieces to avoid all manner of tactical horrors. When a position is won, dozens of attacking combinations, traps and spellbinding sacrifices present themselves to the player on the winning side. Ned was busy considering a spectacular sacrifice of his queen that he believed would force a checkmate in five or six moves, when Babe knocked over his king and gave a rich, low chuckle.
‘Outplayed from pillar to post, you devious son of a mountain whore.’
‘Of course I resign, you dastardly bog and vice versa. My position is so full of holes it’s a wonder the board doesn’t fall to the floor. You planned this, didn’t you, boy? From the first petulant pout of the lip to the last maddening stutter. Oh, you’re wicked. Wicked as whisky.’
Ned looked up anxiously. ‘But the chess, it wasn’t all tricks and psychology was it? I mean, the pure chess was good too.’
‘Lad, there is no such thing as pure chess. There’s good chess and there’s bad. Good chess takes in the breath of your opponent and the dip of his head as much as depth of his mind and the placing of his knights. Good chess cares about the way you move a piece just as much as the square you move it to. Did you know you played a Smyslov Screw just now? You did, you know. A real life Smyslov Screw.’
‘Vasilly Smyslov, world champion from the Soviet Union. I saw him play, as it happens. A master of the endgame and as wily a fox as you’d care to be matched against. He had a way of setting a piece when he made a move and
Ned saw that tears were falling down Babe’s face.
‘It’s all thanks to you,’ he said.
‘Fuff to that! What is it, nine … no, eight and a half weeks since you first pushed a pawn in my direction. Look at you, look at what you can do with those sixteen pieces of cheap wood. Did you ever know your mind could think so deep and play so mean? Did you? Did you? Tell the Babe you’ve amazed yourself!’
‘Babe, I’ve amazed myself,’ said Ned. ‘I don’t know how I did it. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. It’s you. You did it for me.
‘I did nothing. Nothing at all, but let you understand the power of your own mind. There isn’t a player in the world who could call you a patzer or a rabbit now. The great ones will beat you, for sure, but you’ll never disgrace yourself over a checkerboard, not if you live as long as me. This calls for a marvellous toast to be drunk.’
Ned laughed. ‘I’ll whistle for Rolf, shall I?’
‘You think I’m joking. Reach into your mind and draw out your favourite drink. What is it? Are you a whisky man like myself, or does your Harrovian favour the great deep wines of Bordeaux? Is it maybe the gossiping fizz of champagnes fit only for tarts and scoundrels that pleases you? Myself, I’m hankering for the salt oil of a Bunnahabhain, that mysterious Other of the Islay malts. I’ve its queer squat bottle in my hand now and I’m snagging my nails on the lead about its bung… hey now! What have I said to upset you?’
Tears were dropping from Ned’s chin onto the chessboard.
‘It’s nothing, nothing…, only you see I’ve never really had a chance to drink anything. My favourite drink is … used to be… just a glass of cold milk.’
A memory of Oliver Delft opening the refrigerator door crashed into Ned’s mind and he gave a gulping sob.
‘Tss!’ Babe hushed him urgently. ‘Don’t let your distress be seen. I’m sorry Thomas, truly sorry. I had no idea in the world. My stupid tongue, it fancies itself to have a pleasing way with it. The women used to think me a seducer with words and sometimes I play up to the memory of that. It’s my one last vanity in this place of wined minds and in my vulgar haste I took you to a place you have forgotten to visit. But never mind that now. The day will come when you’ll be pleased to go back there.’
‘No!’ said Ned forcefully. ‘I mustn’t. I absolutely mustn’t. There are things in my past that I still don’t understand properly and Dr Mallo says…’
‘Dr Mallo says! Take comfort in knowing that this is a man who is capable of saying, “It’s checkmate in four unless I’m much mistaken.” Dr Mallo, he don’t know shit from sugar and you can’t pretend it isn’t so. He has a soul of pus and the mind of a rotted turd. He is a failure and not a word he says can come near to you.
‘Well that’s something we must decide for ourselves, Thomas. Now, Rolf is walking by, heave a giant sneeze into your handkerchief as if you’d caught a mote of dust in the sunlight.’
The last words that Ned said to Babe that afternoon were, ‘Will you teach me, Babe? Teach me everything you know. Just as you did with chess. Teach me all the science and poetry and philosophy you can. Teach me history and geography. Teach me music and art and mathematics. Will you? You know so much and I know so little. I was supposed to have gone to Oxford, but…’
‘Well, you were saved that at least,’ Babe had replied, ‘so there’s hope yet. Yes, I’ll teach you, Thomas. We shall tread the wide path of philosophy as we trod the narrow path of chess and who knows what we shall discover about ourselves as we go along the way?’
Babe, who was allowed to spend as much time as he liked in the sun-room or out on the lawn, watched Ned being led back through the glazed partition and smiled to himself.
A wickedly enchanting game of chess the lad played there.
Babe was not quite possessed of a God complex, but the mind he had kept so assiduously alive was yearning to do something, to mould and to create. He had always known that he was born to teach: the life of action and ideals had done nothing for him but lead him to this place. In the outside world he had denied his real vocation and was being offered now a chance to redeem himself in one last act of dedication. Dedication this time not to the poor, the dispossessed, the conquered and the subjugated masses, but dedication to the life of the mind and the power of human will.
Before Ned had walked into the sun-room two months earlier Babe had been almost ready to give up his tenacious grip on the world, almost ready to quit the inner fortress he had so carefully constructed and so faithfully inhabited all those years. Ned was not to know it, but the games of chess they had played together had been Babe’s salvation. Whatever they might have done for Ned, they had done more for Babe.
Babe’s brain was a freak of God’s and God deserved better than to have that freak die with the old man that housed it. His prodigious and flawlessly complete memory was the gift that had first marked him out. A memory without energy, will and purpose is of no value however, and those qualities Babe had too and in terrifying superabundance. Without them, his brain, no matter what its speed and power, could never have survived the appalling regime of drugs, isolation and electric convulsions to which it had been subjected for so many years.
Babe’s brain and memory were, after all, a simple matter of genetic fortune and he took no pride in them whatsoever: he had come to discover that it was his will and his will alone that marked him out from common men and will – unlike cerebral proficiency – could be taught, passed on and made to live for ever.
With the exception of the
‘Look at that,’ he said, stabbing down an angry finger. ‘Will you just look at the two Grays?’
Ned peered over Babe’s shoulder and saw that there were two entries under the name Gray, the first for a George Gray which began ‘Professional champion player of Queensland who, at only 17 years of age created a sensation in the billiard world with his exceptional hazard play…’ and a second shorter entry for a Thomas Gray, ‘English poet buried in Stoke Poges.’
‘And here’s this,’ Babe continued, flipping back a page, “‘Grappa, Mountain of Italy, scene of fierce fighting between the Italians and the Austro-Germans in the Great War.” Not a mention of that heavenly and disgusting drink that makes the place immortal! No, no, no, this won’t do. I’m taking it off your hands. We start you on Swedish and German books right away.’
‘But, Babe, I can’t read Swedish or German…
‘Can you name me a great book that you know well? We’ll see if they have it in either language.’
Ned shuffled uncomfortably. ‘A great book?’
‘A novel, tell me at least that you’ve read a novel before now.
‘Of course you did, you poor lamb.
‘Oh yes!’ said Ned enthusiastically. ‘I must have read it at least six times.’
‘Only six times? And what was wrong with it? The book’s a masterpiece.’
‘But, how will I understand a word of it? The only German I know is
‘We shall read it together. You’ll amaze yourself.’
The weeks passed and, with painful slowness at first, they passed through the pages of
‘Fluency equals necessity times confidence over time,’ Babe liked to say. ‘If a five-year-old can speak a language, it cannot be beyond a fifty-year-old.’
‘But a five-year-old can run around for hours, tumbling and falling over without getting tired,’ Ned might often complain, ‘it doesn’t follow that a fifty-year-old can do the same.
‘Bolshy talk. I’ll have none of it.’
Sometimes, in the summer months, Babe and Ned walked on the lawn together, speaking low in Swedish (it was a game they enjoyed, not letting any of the staff know that Ned had learnt the language of the place and could now understand the staff when they spoke in front of him) and Babe would encourage Ned to talk of his past.
‘Charlie Maddstone. You don’t say? Never served under him myself, but I had friends who did. And he turned to politics? Now that was a mistake for a man like that. He was born a hundred years too late that one.
The relief for Ned to be able to talk about his life was enormous and he felt himself thriving. His appetite for knowledge grew and it was not long before he and Babe were talking about ideas that Ned had never considered in all his life.
‘We’re conquering time, do you see, Ned?’ Babe called him by his real name now, when they were beyond the ears of the staff. ‘What do all people in the real world, the world outside this wicked island, regard as the most precious commodity known to them? Time. Time, the old enemy, they call it. What do you hear again and again? “If only I had more time.” “Had we but world enough and time.” “There’s never enough time. I never had the time to learn music, to enjoy life, to find out the names of the stars in the sky, the plants of the earth, the birds of the air. I never had time to teach myself Italian.” “There’s no time to think.” “How can I possibly find the time to do that?” “I never found the time to tell her how much I loved her.”
‘And all we have, you and I, is that very thing, time, and if we look on this as the most magnificent gift afforded to mankind, then we can see that in this place we are one with Augustine in his cell and Montaigne in his tower. We are the chosen, the privileged. We have what the richest man on earth most covets and can never buy. We have what Henri Bergson saw as God’s chief instrument of torture and madness. Time. Oceans of time in which to be and to become.’
There were days when Ned, remembering this speech, endorsed it and praised Fate for his captivity and the freedom over time it gave him. At other moments, the more he knew, the more he balked and fretted.
‘Do you understand why you are here, Babe?’ he asked once.
‘Pooh, Ned, it’s so simple. I am here because I am mad. We are all here because we are mad. Was that not explained to you when you arrived?’
‘No, seriously. You’re not mad and I know that I am not, although that is entirely thanks to you. Don’t you trust me enough yet to tell me about yourself? You’ve never even told me your real name.’
They had been walking around the lawn and Babe stopped now and tugged at his beard. ‘I sprang from an impoverished branch of the grand and ancient Scottish family of Fraser and was christened Simon. As the youngest of six the nickname of Babe has always stayed with me. I was hired fresh from university because of this memory of mine,’ he said, staring out over the lawn and towards the bald and distant hills. ‘Things stick in the deep brain-pan with which God saw fit to curse me. In those days they stuck even faster and firmer. Intelligence and purpose had nothing to do with it. I remembered the time of every Derby winner as well as I remembered the postulates of Spinoza or the categorical imperatives of Kant. There was a cold war on and a man like me was a useful asset. But I had a conscience, Ned and the day came when I went to see a writer friend of mine. I told him I wanted to collaborate on a book. A great book, to be published in America, for they would never have let it see the light of day in Britain. A book that would blow the whistle on every dirty trick, every hypocritical evasion and every filthy lie that ever came out of the west in its squalid battle for supremacy over its perceived enemy. I’m not a traitor, Ned, nor never would be. I loved England. I loved it too well to let it sink lower than the level of a dung-beetle in its pursuit of lost grandeur. Well, it turned out that the writer friend was no friend at all and the long and the short of it is that I found myself here. This is a place they use if it suits them. When someone is a threat, you understand. The Soviets have their psychiatric prisons and so, as you have found, do we. Ours are a better kept secret, that is the only difference that I have ever been able to make out.’
Ned thought for a while. ‘I suppose I had imagined something like that,’ he said at length. ‘That’s why I wanted to hear it from you. If you are here for that reason then it follows that I must be here for that reason too. Only, you know why you are here and I do not. Some – I don’t know – some
‘We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, Ned, struck and banded which way please them.’
‘You don’t believe that. You believe in will. You told me so.
‘Like anyone with a sliver of honesty in them I believe what I find I believe when I wake up each morning. Sometimes I can only think we are determined by the writing in our genes, sometimes it seems to me that we are made or unmade by our upbringings. On better days, it is true that I hope with some conviction that we and we alone make ourselves everything that we are.
‘Nature, Nurture or Nietzsche in fact.’
‘Ha!’ Babe clapped Ned in the back. ‘It’s coming on, the creature is coming on,’ he boomed to the wide uncomprehending lawn. ‘Listen,’ he said, tucking his arm in Ned’s, ‘if you want to understand your own situation, can you not apply some of the logic it has cost me so much brain blood to teach you? Take out Occam’s Razor and cut away the irrelevant and the obfuscatory. Set down only what you know. Did I never tell you about Zeno?’
‘His paradox of how Achilles could never reach the winning line? Yes, you told me.’
‘Ah, but he had another lesson to teach us. I will show you.
Babe led Ned towards a tall pine that leaned away from the slope and towards the high fence at the bottom of the lawn.
‘We shall sit under the tree. Great thinkers have always sat under trees. It is an academic thing to do. The word itself derives from the Academia, the grove where Plato taught his pupils. Even the French
‘Is that a heap?’
‘No, of course not.’
Babe added another. ‘How about that, do we have a heap now? Of course not, we have nothing more than two fir cones. Incidentally did it ever strike you as suspicious that fir cone is an anagram of conifer? More dirty work from God, you might think. Look at the arrangement too. A band of three, then five, then eight, then thirteen and so on. A Fibonacci series. Beyond coincidence, surely? Mr God giving himself away again. But that is a side issue. Here we have two cones. All right then, I add another. Is it now a heap?’
‘I’ll add another.’
Ned leant back against the soft warm bark of the pine tree and watched as Babe scrabbled about fetching fir cones, each time adding another.
‘Yes,’ he said at last, as much out of pity for Babe as because he thought so, ‘I’d say that is definitely a heap.’
‘We have a heap!’ Babe clapped his hands. ‘A heap of fir cones! Seventeen of the darlings. So Ned Maddstone is telling the world that seventeen is officially a heap?’
‘Seventeen fir cones constitute a heap, but sixteen do not?’
‘No, I’m not saying that exactly…’
‘There we have the problem. The world is full of heaps like this, Ned. This is good, this is not good. This is bad luck, but this is a towering injustice. This is mass murder and this genocide. This is child-killing, this abortion. This is lawful intercourse, this statutory rape. There is nothing but a single fir cone’s difference between them, sometimes just the one lonely only little cone telling us that it represents the difference between heaven and hell.’
‘I don’t quite see the connection…’
‘You yourself, Ned, you say a conspiracy brought you here. That is like saying a heap brought you here. Who is a conspiracy? Why? How many exactly? For what purpose? Don’t tell me it was a heap, just a heap, no more no less. Tell me it was seventeen, or four, or five hundred. See the thing as it is in all its quiddity, all its whatness, all its particularity and deep nature. Otherwise you will never understand the blindest thing about what happened to you, not if you were here for a thousand years and spoke a thousand languages.’
It was deep midwinter and the whole island glowed crystalline white under its eternal shroud of winter darkness. The chairs had been moved from the sun room into a salon deeper inside the building. In one of the arches Babe and Ned sat playing backgammon over a formica table.
The stone arches that ran along the side of the salon were one of the few detectable remnants of the original monastery around which the hospital had been built and its Romanesque structure of blank arcading had once allowed for a rare practical lesson in architectural elements. Only the sun and clouds by day, the stars at night and the rounded hills visible through the windows in summer had offered like chances for Ned to use more than his mind’s eye when taking instruction.
The backgammon they played was of an unusual kind. Since the hospital did not have a set, they played using five paper dice and nothing else. The board and thirty men existed only in their minds. The eccentricity of their games amused the staff. Two of the patients had grown upset however and attempted to pull the imaginary board from the table and trample it – presumably, Ned had suggested, because it played hell with their own sense of the real and the invisible. Their pride, as lunatics, in being able to see what others could not was inflamed when they could not see what others apparently could. By reason of the strong effect their playing had on others, Ned and Babe were allowed to sit in that vaulted arch, away from the central area of tables where the others sat.
It was easy for Ned and Babe to see the pieces laid out in front of them. They played for a hundred pounds a point and at this time Babe owed Ned forty-two million pounds. They had no need for concentration to remember their positions and were able to carry on conversations of some complexity in languages of their choosing, without ever challenging the other’s sense of where the pieces were, or quibbling over how many men were left to be borne off in the ending. Sometimes, as on this evening, Ned flicked a- flat stone around the fingers of one hand. Babe had taught him coin and card magic and he liked to keep in practice, French dropping, palming, stealing and manipulating as he talked.
For the last week, Ned had been able to do a little teaching of his own on the subject of cricket, a game of which Babe was ignorant.
Babe was talking now of the writings of C. L. R. James, a historian and social commentator he greatly admired.
‘It’s a pity I shall never read him again, Thomas,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I always skipped those passages where he waxed lyrical about cricket. He connected it to West Indian life, to colonialism, Shakespeare, Hegel and every other bebuggered thing. I interpreted it as sentimental hogwash, such was the puritanical ignorance of my youth.’
‘I was a fine player, you know,’ Ned said. ‘I think I might have played for Oxford and maybe even for a county if things had turned out differently. God, it sounds absurd to talk about cricket in Italian. Can’t we switch?’
‘Certainly,’ said Babe in Dutch. ‘This is much more appropriate, don’t you think? They do play a little in Holland.’
‘I suppose so. My father’s hero was Prince Ranjitsinji. I told you about him, didn’t I? From the golden age of cricket. Men said that watching his leg-glide was like seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight.’
‘I did see the Taj Mahal by moonlight once,’ said Babe. ‘Very disappointing it was too, the…
‘I know,’ said Ned, with a hint of impatience, ‘you told me. I couldn’t sleep last night, my father visited me in my dreams again.’
‘Your mind always harks on the past in the middle of these long winters,’ said Babe, accepting a double from Ned and placing the cube close by him. ’The bones in your shoulders ache and you fret. The spring is not so far away. You’ll be more cheerful then.’ Babe softly whistled a tune under his breath.
‘Ten out of ten. And this?’ Babe whistled again.
‘Never mind all that,’ Ned reverted to English. ‘I’m not in the mood for testing tonight. I still want to
‘What is there that you do not know?’
‘You must be aware by now, Babe, that I am not a fool.
This is a private lunatic asylum, or as Mallo prefers to call it “?lite international clinic”. Nobody comes here for free.
Someone has paid for you to be here and for me to be here.
And they have gone on paying.’
‘The art of good intelligence work is nothing to do with spying, Ned. The art is to manipulate the civil servants and ministers who operate the Secret Fund. The world follows money with a keener nose than it follows anything. If you can hide your bank accounts and your standing orders, if you can siphon and launder and divert streams of government money, then, and only then, can you truly call yourself a spy.’
‘All right. So there is no great mystery about the how. But in my case there is still the why. That is what makes no sense. When I first arrived I thought I’d been kidnapped. But kidnappers don’t keep shelling out money for their captives. So after a few years I began to believe what Mallo told me, that I was a fantasist whose real life was buried so deep that no memory of it remained. I know that isn’t true and I suppose I always did. I know that I was taken here quite deliberately. But by whom and why? That is what still eludes me. No one can have thought for a moment that I was an IRA collaborator, and if they had they certainly would not bring me here, to the same place they bring people like you.’
‘As you have seen, Ned, the genuinely insane come here too. You and I are the only inmates to flatter ourselves that we are political prisoners. You keep denying the possibility, but have you not stopped to think that perhaps those who put us in this place knew what they were doing? Perhaps I was admitted here because I truly am mad? Quite terribly mad.’
‘Yes,’ Ned admitted with a smile, ‘naturally I’ve considered that. And of course you
‘Dear God, Thomas, acquit me too that I ever taught you to speak like that.’
‘I choose this style of discourse to provoke you, and well you know it. I return to the same problem again and again. I have somehow got on the wrong side of the British secret service, or whatever one chooses to call it. Can you not at least agree with me on that?’
Babe bowed his head in assent.
‘You remember that time you sat under the
‘The idea being to encourage me to look at facts clearly? To separate the concrete from the abstract, the actual from the perceived?’
‘I don’t believe I put it quite like that, but yes, I do remember.’
‘Well, every night I go over what I am sure are the five salient points in my history and try to be sure that I have seen them clearly. They yield nothing.’
‘Tell me what you mean by the salient points.’
‘They are obvious. One, I unwittingly agreed to deliver a letter that was given me by an IRA courier. Two, I was arrested for the possession of drugs which had been planted on me. Three, because that letter was also still on my person, I was removed from a police station and taken to what I may assume was a British intelligence safe house where I was interrogated. Four, at the end of the interrogation I was told that I would be taken home. Five, I was not taken home, I was cruelly beaten and transported here, where I have stayed ever since. I don’t believe I’m wrong in identifying those as the important facts, surely?’
‘If you say so.
‘What do you mean “if I say so”? I’ve beaten my head against the wall of those facts for years and years.’
‘Which might suggest,’ said Babe gently, ‘that they are of no use to you. Perhaps you have still not been approaching matters in the right way. The right way would not endlessly lead to an immovable wall of facts, it would disclose a pattern of events. A pattern that could be unlocked. By labelling your facts one, two, three and so on, you are implying a causal sequential relation between them that may obscure that pattern.’
‘Don’t ask yourself what happened to you. Ask yourself what happened to
‘And what on earth is that supposed to mean?’
‘Did you have enemies, for example? You never talk about that possibility.’
‘I never had an enemy in the world!’ said Ned with some heat. ‘I was the most popular boy in the school. I was about to be made Captain of School. I was captain of the cricket team. I was in love. I was ready to go to Oxford. How could anybody hate me?’
‘And what’s so funny?’
‘I’m sorry. Let me try and explain. You have just summarised the situation of a person who might have good cause to be happy, but how does it answer my question? It is a description of someone for whom the classic response “Don’t you just hate him?” was invented.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that kind of clich? banter before? “What, he’s good at sport
‘Nice is a heap word. You pile up enough “nice” actions and you think that makes you a whole heap of nice? What were you really? What did you
‘I did nothing.’
‘You’re saying some people hated me?’
‘Not hated necessarily. It might be worth separating a number of these salient facts of yours. Let’s forget the big one, your arrival here and concentrate on the initiating fact. Let us suppose the dope was planted on you to disgrace you. Now who might benefit from that?’
‘No one. How could anybody benefit from such a stupid thing? It would just upset those who loved me that’s all.’
‘Ah, well. Maybe that was the very benefit sought. But perhaps too there was a more tangible advantage for someone. Captain of School, captain of cricket and in love with a beautiful girl. There are plenty of hot youths who might covet any one or all three of those things to distraction. Who would become Captain of School, for example, if you were expelled for the possession of drugs?’
‘How can I know that?’
‘You must have some idea.’
‘Well, Ashley Barson- Garland probably.’
‘Ashley Barson-Garland. Tell me about him. Everything you can think of. Talk in numbers, not in heaps.’
So Ned told Babe all about Ashley, concluding his description with ‘… but he liked me, I’m sure of it…’ which sounded a little lame, even to his own ears.
‘You don’t think he suspected that you had looked through those five private pages of his innermost thoughts?’
‘I was incredibly careful not to show it. No, he couldn’t possibly have known.’
‘Oh Ned. Poor Ned. Think back on yourself. Think back on the pretty, smiling lad you were. How much did you know then? How well were you able to hide anything? What guile did you possess? Don’t you see that a sophisticated, prickly, bitter and self-aware creature like this self-styled Barson-Garland could have read you more easily than you read his diary? Snobs see social slights wherever they go and frauds can read exposure in every glance. Even if he did not know, can you not believe that he. might have
Ned chewed his bottom lip in irritation. ‘All right, but even if he did, why would he hate me?’
‘Use your imagination.’
‘I thought you told me to examine everything dispassionately. If I use imagination I can dream up anything, what help is that?’
‘Don’t confuse imagination with fantasy. Imagination is the ability to project yourself into the mind of others. It is the most hard-headed and clear-eyed faculty we have. If you use your imagination, you can see that from Ashley’s point of view you were every single thing that he was not. My own instinct, I must tell you, is that he was also in love with you but unable to see it.’
‘Oh for God’s sake!’
‘Think back what you read. Masturbating with all that fury into the boater he kept. I won’t labour the point, it’s just a theory.’
‘Then why does it upset you so much?’
‘It doesn’t upset me …’ Ned’s knee began to bounce up and down, a thing that had not happened for a long time. He stopped himself. ‘All right, perhaps it does. Because it’s so useless. Because it doesn’t get us anywhere.’
‘It upsets you because it is
‘Well even so,’ said Ned irritably, ‘you can’t tell me that Ashley Barson-Garland would go so far as getting hold of drugs deliberately to have me thrown out of school. He didn’t know the first thing about…
‘Never mind that,’ said Babe, as Ned tried to reassemble the cube. ‘Rufus Cade. That’s not a name you’ve mentioned before.’
‘He wasn’t anyone. I did drop him from the First Eleven … but that’s ridiculous. No one, I mean no one could be so vindictive and petty-minded as to … he smoked cannabis though, I do know that. All the time.’
‘Well now, suddenly we have two boys with motives, however trivial. And one of them even has access to what we might call the murder weapon.
‘Do you know,’ said Ned, only half-listening. ‘I think deep down I always had a feeling that Rufus didn’t really like me. I can’t quite explain it. There was something in the way his eyes slid away from mine when we talked. He was never exactly rude, but I do remember the time I had to skipper the
‘What was Othello’s crime? He was big, handsome and successful. And he had Desdemona.’
‘But Rufus had never even set
‘Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten all that Catullus I once tried to ram into your head,’ said Babe sorrowfully.
‘An idea taking shape, is it?’ Babe asked after a long pause. ‘If there were an art to find the mind’s construction in the face, then I would say you were thinking imponderable thoughts and that light was beginning to break.’
Babe listened carefully to everything Ned had to say about Gordon.
‘Let’s see if I’ve got this clear,’ he said. ‘Ashley and Gordon went off together to look at the House of Commons the day you got back from Scotland and Portia and Gordon got back from Italy?’
‘That’s right, I remember thinking that it would be nice for Gordon to see the Mother of Parliaments.’
‘Dear me, I hope you didn’t actually
‘And just what exactly would be wrong with that?’
‘Well, perhaps…’ Ned smiled too. ‘Anyway, the point is that later, when Portia and I were still…, when we were still upstairs making love, they came back.’ Ned struck the table again. ‘God, that must be it! That must be it!’
‘Gordon and Ashley came back?’
‘Yes, but with Rufus. Don’t you see? Ashley must always have been going to meet up with him in a pub somewhere. He and Rufus were thick as thieves. Rufus came down to London from Scotland on the same train as me. Ashley took Gordon off to meet Rufus in a pub and they all came back while Portia and I were still upstairs.
‘What did they say?’
‘It was only for a moment. Ashley said … what did he say? Said there was something he had to fetch. He called up to me. “You young people enjoy yourselves…“ those were his exact words. And Babe, listen to this! My jacket was hanging on the banister in the hallway downstairs. Jesus, they must have sat there in the pub and planned it all. They even knew where I was going! They knew I was going to Knightsbridge with Portia to…’
‘Calm down, Ned. Calm down.’
‘Can’t you just picture them sitting there, getting tanked up around a pub table and moaning about Ned bloody Maddstone and how they’d like to see him come crashing down? That’s when they decided to ruin my life. All they had to do was make an anonymous phone call to the police. And they laughed as they planted the stuff in my jacket. “You young people enjoy yourselves!” Those are the words that Ashley called up and I heard Rufus and Gordon smothering their giggles. I remember feeling touched and proud. I thought my friends were giggling like naughty schoolboys at the thought of me and Portia upstairs and I was proud. But they were laughing because they knew I was about to be destroyed. And I’ll tell you something else! They
Ned’s face was white and spittle creamed at the corners of his mouth as it did on the lips of some of the real lunatics they saw every day. Babe leaned forward to touch his arm. ‘It’s all right, my friend. It’s all right. Take it slowly. You
‘Of course I have! That’s
Martin’s voice intruded on them. ‘What exactly is going on here? You two having some kind of lover’s quarrel?’
Ned almost betrayed his understanding of Swedish by leaping in with an angry retort, but Babe beat him to it.
‘Not a quarrel, Martin… can’t remember the numbers.
Can’t remember the numbers,’ he said in a dazed mumble, staring down at the invisible backgammon board.
‘You two,’ said Martin in English, ‘both crazy. Everyone here crazy,’ he spread his arms to include the room, ‘but you two most crazy of all. Is time now you go to rooms. Tomorrow shall be an inspection. Shave in the morning, be behaving well.’
Ned did not sleep that night. Around in his head revolved three laughing faces. Fendeman, Garland and Cade. The names repeated in his mind like the rhythm of a train or the thunder of hooves on a racetrack.
Fendeman, Garland and Cade. Fendeman, Garland and Cade. Fendeman, Garland and Cade. Fendeman, Garland and Cade.
Babe also lay awake that night, and for many subsequent nights. He had detected a change in Ned that worried him.
‘I don’t like to see you thrashing your engine like this,’ he would say. ‘There is nowhere to take it. It can only burn you up.
Ned seemed to take no notice and retreated more and more into the past where he relived his final days in the world over and over, hearing again each syllable that had been spoken to him by Fendeman, Garland and Cade, seeing once more in his mind’s eye every glance and gesture they made. He had built up a picture of himself through their eyes.
He saw from Rufus Cade’s point of view an image of Ned the arrogant, Ned the cocky, Ned the careless and vain. Every sweet smile, every polite mumbled apology seemed to him now an obvious cause of resentment.
Ned understood how to Ashley he must have represented everything assured, everything attractive, everything unattainably privileged, perfect and graceful. Even the act of securing him summer employment as his father’s assistant could appear patronising and offensive.
Gordon too, arriving in a foreign land, would naturally look upon Ned Maddstone as the living image of all that was remote, English, gentile and alien. To see his cousin Portia ignore him in her obsession with a boy so opposite to himself could certainly drive Gordon to hatred.
Everything Ned had and was he could now interpret as repugnant, ugly, oppressive and obscene. Everything in and of him – the V-neck cricket sweaters, the flopping fringe of hair, the rueful smiles and pretty eyes, the lazy athleticism, the delicate skin and peachy blush, the voice, accent, manner and gait – all of Ned Maddstone stood as a monument that those of spirit would cry out to despoil.
Yet how dared they? How dared they not see that Ned had been unaware of all this? How dared they not understand that he was blamelessly unimaginative, gentle and innocent? Whatever arrogance he may have displayed, Ned would never in those days have assumed that his feelings had primacy over those of others. That they could be so confident in their interpretation of him was an arrogance way beyond anything he had been capable of. They hid their rage. They pretended to like him. They coldly planned to disgrace him in the eyes of his father and his lover, as if he had no emotional life, no point of view and no right to happiness of his own. That they could treat him as a symbol without life or capacity for pain marked them down as evil beyond imagining. There did not exist the faintest possibility that Ned could ever forgive them.
Fendeman, Garland and Cade. Fendeman, Garland and Cade.
‘I have been trying to apply the same thinking to what happened after my arrest,’ he said to Babe one morning, while Babe sketched a circuit diagram.
‘Let’s just concentrate on what we’re doing, shall we? Have you an idea what it is yet?’
‘It’s a hi-fl amplifier circuit.’
Babe shook his head. ‘You’re not trying. Count the capacitors.’
‘An electronic calculator. A central heating thermostat. Controls for an automatic milking parlour. Who cares? Babe, we’ve got this far, we’ve got to go further. I’m right about everything that happened up to my arrival at the police station, I know it. Those three planned my arrest. But they knew nothing about the letter. I need to understand what happened next.’
Babe sighed and put down his pen. ‘A burglar alarm, and such an elegant one too,’ he said, folding the diagram in half. ‘Here, you can study it later. I shall be asking you questions about it another time.’
Ned took it impatiently. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Another time.
‘Tell me once more,’ said Babe. ‘You were taken by a man called Oliver Delft to a house in the country. You sat in the kitchen and explained to him how you came by the envelope and its incriminating code words. You are there again now. Picture it. Feel yourself there, Delft in front of you with a glass of wine, you at the table with your carton of milk.’
Ned closed his eyes and tried to recall the dialogue.
‘… you’ll be home before the
‘Can you remember them all?’
‘He asked me everything. Everything about the sailing trip. How long did we stay at the Giant’s Causeway…’ Ned screwed his eyes tighter. ‘He was relaxed, bored almost. You’re doing well, Ned, very well. Not too far to go now…, was it a moonless night?… That’s good, Ned. Excellent, excellent. And the envelope came from where? … Well, a shop I suppose, a stationer’s … No, no, he
‘And he’s standing over you,’ Babe’s voice seemed to come from far away. ‘He’s questioning you, the tape is running and you say he looks almost bored?’
‘He had a sudden twinge of cramp and that woke him up a bit,’ said Ned.
‘Cramp?’ said Babe, frowning. ‘What do you mean cramp?’
‘Well, he leapt out of his seat and started walking up and down. I asked him if he was all right and he said it was just a touch of cramp. Then he went out of the room for a moment and came back with a bag of clothes…’
Babe leaned forward. ‘What had you said?’ he asked. ‘What had you said just before he got cramp? What
‘He had been asking me about the envelope, who Paddy wanted me to deliver it to, all the details…’
‘But what exactly had
‘Well, I told him what Paddy had asked me to do – I told him the envelope was to be delivered to a Mr Blackrow, Philip R. Blackrow in… what was the name of the street? It was a square, Heron Square, W1. Number Thirteen, I’m pretty sure – ‘ Ned broke off. Babe was staring across the table at him with a look of horror on his face. ‘What? Babe, what on earth is the matter?’
Babe shook his head and made a noise that sounded like something between a groan and a laugh.
‘Are you all right? What is it?’
‘Oh, Ned, Ned, Ned.’ Babe rocked backwards and forwards in his chair. ‘Why did you never tell me that part of it before? You only told me Blackrow. But Paddy didn’t say
‘Yes it was. I was the one there, for God’s sake, not you! The name was Philip R. Blackrow, 13 Heron Square. I heard it clear as anything.’
Babe had started to shake with laughter. ‘Philip R.
Blackrow! Oh, you poor young donkey, is that what you heard? Don’t you see? It wasn’t Philip
‘Philippa? But how could you be so sure of that?’ Ned stared at Babe in bewilderment. ‘I mean it’s possible, I suppose but – are you saying you
‘I should have joined the dots earlier,’ said Babe. ‘You mentioned the name Blackrow and I never made the connection. What a fool you are, Babe.’
‘What connection? Babe, if you know something, then tell me.’
‘Delft and Blackrow, I can’t believe I’ve been so slow. But there again, who but I would have remembered those names from just one glance at a file over thirty years ago? Oh, you’re an unlucky man, Ned Maddstone, a most unlucky man.’
‘Tell me, Babe. Tell me everything.’
‘Did you ever hear of Jack Custance?’
Ned shook his head.
‘Shot as a traitor during the Second World War. English as a china spaniel, but Fenian to his core. He left a wife and one child, a daughter called Philippa. The wife died in Canada, so her rich brother Robert Wheeler brought little Philippa back to live in England with his family. She grew up as Philippa Wheeler and in due course married one Peter Delft, bearing a child, unnamed, ungendered and undated in the file. Peter Delft died in September, nineteen sixty-one, if memory serves – which of course it does. In April nineteen sixty-three she remarried the merchant banker Jeremy Blackrow and by the time I came across the file in sixty-three no one had ever bothered to update it from that day forward. Thus Philippa Custance became Philippa Wheeler became Philippa Delft became Philippa Blackrow. I only read Jack Custance’s file to research his early life. I had been given the tedious job of writing a paper on the profile of your typical British republican sympathiser, as if such a definable type ever existed.’
‘Philippa Blackrow was Oliver Delft’s mother?’ Ned enunciated each word with extreme deliberation, as if afraid the meaning of what he said would totter and collapse. ‘He was her son. He was the son of the very person Paddy wanted me to give the letter to?’
‘No cross referencing,’ said Babe with a disapproving purse of the lips. ‘Her son applies to the service and they don’t connect Oliver Delft with the daughter of a condemned traitor. Well, how can we expect an intelligence service that can’t spot a full Colonel of the KGB in its ranks to notice a small thing like that? But no wonder Oliver had a touch of cramp when you mentioned her name out of the blue. Must have put the fear of God into him.’
‘So he was a traitor too?’
‘Perhaps, but not necessarily. He might have joined without knowing anything about his mother’s true allegiances.’
‘In either case,’ said Ned, ‘he couldn’t allow me to wander about the world knowing her name.
‘Precisely. If he was any good at his job he would have to find a way to get rid of you and cover all your tracks. We know how he got rid of you. But I wonder how he hid the trail …’ Babe’s voice trailed off.
Ned grasped him by the sleeve. ‘What are you thinking?’
‘You have to think of it from Delft’s point of view,’ murmured Babe, more to himself than to Ned. ‘He’s on duty. A flash comes through that a youth has been picked up with a document that might interest the service. He interrogates you, all seems fine, you turn out to be nothing but an innocent. He discovers his own mother is implicated. What can he do? His section chief will ask all kinds of questions next day. “We see from the log, Oliver, that you were sent out to a police station. Who was this boy? What did he have on him?” What would I do if I were Delft?’
‘I don’t follow,’ said Ned. ‘What exactly…
‘Sh!’ Babe put a finger to his lips, ‘I would pretend to be
‘I’m not sure …
‘Mine was a grubby trade,’ said Babe. ‘Let me tell you what Oliver did.’
That night, as Ned lay awake, another name joined the others pounding inside his head. Now it was
Delft, Fendeman, Garland and Cade. Delft, Fendeman, Garland and Cade. He banged the names with his fist against his thigh. He scratched them with his nails into the palm of his hand. He burned the names into his brain. Delft, Fendeman, Garland and Cade. Delft, Fendeman, Garland and Cade.
Spring on the island was a time when, in the past, Ned had always felt at his most imprisoned. As the long winter melted away and the days lengthened, birds would begin to arrive bringing thoughts of a world outside. As they built their nests and started to sing, Ned would feel the limits of his own mind. No amount of literature, science or philosophy could counter the absolute beauty of the daffodils and the birdsong, nor palliate the terrible achings they awoke in him.
One day in mid-April, just a week after the sun-room had been opened up for the year, Ned sat at the chessboard waiting for Babe. They rarely played these days. It embarrassed Ned that he could beat the older man so easily and it annoyed him that Babe seemed so devoid of will as not to care who won.
Martin came out into the sunlight, blinking. He approached Ned with a smile.
‘You waiting for Babe, I suppose?’
‘Of course,’ replied Ned.
‘You wait long time then. Babe had some heart attack last night. Babe is in his bed dying right now.’
Ned sprang to his feet and grabbed Martin by the coat.
‘Hey, Thomas! You let go. You want to be strapped up in punishment cell?’
‘Take me to him!’ Ned yelled. ‘Take me to him right now.
‘I don’t take you to nobody,’ Martin sneered. ‘Who you think you are? You don’t tell me orders. I tell
Ned let go of Martin’s collar and started to smoothe it down placatingly. ‘Please, Martin,’ he said. ‘Try to understand. Babe is everything to me. He is my father, my brother and my only friend. We are like … we are like you and Henrik.’ Ned gestured towards where a young newly-arrived Swede was sat trembling and hugging his knees in a basket-chair at the other end of the room. ‘You and Henrik, how close you are. How wonderful it is. It is the same with Babe and me. You understand don’t you? You do understand. I know Dr Mallo would understand. He would want me to be with Babe now, I am sure of it.’
Martin’s eyes narrowed and then dropped. ‘I let you see Babe, you don’t go talking bad things about me to Dr Mallo?’
‘Never, Martin. Never would I say bad things about you to Dr Mallo. You are my friend, Martin. My good friend.’
Ned allowed Martin to lead him to the hospital wing. It took him past Mallo’s office and into a corridor down which he had never been before.
Babe was the only patient in the small four-bed ward. Lying on his back with a tube up his nose, he seemed shrunken and old. Ned knelt by his bed and looked at the face he loved so deeply.
‘Babe,’ he whispered, ‘Babe, it’s Thomas.’
‘I come back half an hour,’ said Martin, closing and locking the door. ‘You go then. Not see Babe again.’
Ned could see the thick orbs of Babe’s eyeballs rolling under the loosened skin of his eyelids.
‘Ned?’ The name came out in a whispered breath.
Ned took a hand. ‘It’s me,’ he said, tears starting to roll down his face. ‘Babe, you can’t leave me. You mustn’t leave me. Please … please … I’ll go mad. I know I’ll go mad.’ His voice cracked and he gave a huge sob. ‘Babe! Oh Christ, Babe! I will kill myself if you go. I swear to Christ I will.’
Babe pushed out his blackened tongue and passed it over dry and flaking lips. ‘I am dying,’ he said. ‘They will pack me in a box in the room next to this. I heard them talking when I woke up an hour ago. They will seal me in a crate and take me to the mainland where I will be certified dead, nailed into a coffin and sent home. They will burn me in England.’
‘Please don’t talk like this,’ the tears were dropping from Ned’s face onto the bed sheets.
‘We have half an hour, no more,’ whispered Babe, ‘so you must listen to me. In sixty-nine I was preparing to leave England. They caught me before I could leave and they brought me here, but they never guessed what I had been up to.’
‘Babe, please! You’re working yourself up…’
‘If you don’t listen,’ Babe took Ned’s hand and gripped it hard, ‘I shall die here and now!’ he hissed. ‘Be silent for once and
Babe opened the hand that had been grasping Ned’s. A small fold of paper was clipped between his fingers. ‘Take it. There is money there, perhaps after thirty years it is more than you can spend. The Cotter Bank, Geneva. When they found out that it was missing they came here to question me. I had hidden its trail and they were mad with rage. “Where is it? What have you done with it?” I had been here no more than a month, but Mallo had passed that month jolting my brain with electricity and filling me with drugs. The violence of my behaviour had given him no choice. I had known they would come you see, and I wanted to be ready. When they arrived, I dribbled, I giggled, I simpered, I slobbered and I wept. You would have been proud of me, Ned. I was the maddest of the mad. A ruin of a noble mind. They went away cursing, in the belief that they had destroyed the sanity of the only man that knew where all that money lay. I’d love to know how they explained it to their Minister. Now, read that piece of paper, learn it and destroy it. The Cotter Bank, Geneva. All the money will be yours when you leave here.’
‘Why do you think I want money?’ Ned’s tears still flowed in an endless stream. ‘I don’t want money, I want you! If you die, I will die. You know I will never leave this place.’
Ned, weeping at this inconsequential madness, took the spoon.
‘Hide it on you, no not there. Not in a damned pocket! Suppose Martin searches you?’
‘Where?’ Ned looked down at Babe in bewilderment.
‘Your anus, man! Push it deep in your anus. I don’t care if it bleeds.’
‘Do it, do it now or I swear by almighty Christ that I’ll die cursing you. There! I don’t care if it makes you scream. I don’t care if you bleed like a pig, push it up, push it up! Now, can you stand? Can you sit? Good, good, you’ll do.’
Babe leant back down on the pillow and slowed his breath. ‘Now then,’ he said at last. ‘Now then, Ned. You’ve got the piece of paper. Look at it. The Cotter Bank, Geneva. I dared not write that down. See on the paper. There’s a number, a password phrase and a counter phrase.
Learn them. Repeat them to me… good, and again. Again … once more. Now swallow the paper. Chew it and swallow. Repeat the number … the passwords … the address again.’
‘Why are you doing this, Babe? You’re frightening me.’
‘I owe you the money. Backgammon. You’re a devil at the game. Not much more now, lad. Cast your mind back to last winter. The week before Christmas. The day we talked together about Philippa Blackrow. I had been drawing a circuit diagram for you, do you remember? You kept it, like I told you?’
‘It’s in my room, I suppose. With all my other papers. Why?’
‘It’s Thursday. Paul is on night duty. You get on all right with Paul. Hold him in conversation, ask him about football as he closes you in. You’ll need your wits to time it. Use the teaspoon to catch the lock. There’s so much for you to do. You’ll need all your strength. I’ll go on the morning boat to the mainland. Christ, what’s that I can hear?’
A key rattled in the lock and the door swung open. Martin beckoned to Ned.
‘You come with me now. Leave Babe, come with me.’
‘You said half an hour!’
‘The doctor, he comes to look at Babe. You come.
Ned threw himself down on the bed, his tear-sodden face soaking Babe’s beard.
‘Goodbye, my boy. You have already saved my life. My mind will live forever in yours. Build great things in my memory and to my memory. We have loved each other. For my sake now, stop your howling. Go quietly and pass this last day in remembering. Remember everything. You take my love and memory with you for ever.’
From the doorway, Ned cast one last look back into the room as Martin pushed him against the wall.
Babe’s eyes were closed tight. All his concentration now was being spent on forcing his heart to beat faster and faster until it might burst in his chest.
An hour after lunch, Martin came to the sun-room with the news that Babe had died.
Ned, sitting alone at the chessboard, nodded. ‘Was he in pain?’
‘No pain,’ Martin’s voice was quiet and almost reverential. ‘Very peaceful. He has quick heart attack once more and was dead fast. Dr Mallo say there was nothing nobody could do,’ he added, with a hint of defensiveness. ‘Not in any hospital in the world.’
‘Would you mind,’ Ned asked quietly, ‘if I spent the rest of the day in my room? I would like to think and…, and to pray.
‘Okay, I take you there.’
They walked in silence to Ned’s room. Martin looked around at the piles of books and papers leaning up against the walls. ‘Babe, he teached you many things, yes?’
‘Yes, Martin. Many things.’
‘Some books in my language here, but you are not speaking.’
‘A little, I can read a little, but not speak very well,’ Ned replied, in halting Swedish.
‘Yes. Your accent is bad. Maybe, now Babe gone, we are better friends,’ said Martin. ‘You teach English, I teach Swedish. You teach music and the mathematics to me also.’
‘That would be nice,’ said Ned. ‘I would like that.’
‘I leave school early. I run from home where my father was beating me. The more you teach, the better friends.’
‘It’s not necessary you have to be nice with me,’ Martin said, looking awkwardly at the floor. ‘I understand this. Sometimes, I am bad. I have bad feelings in my heart. You must have me in your prayers now.
‘Of course, Ned felt unwanted tears falling down his cheeks again.
‘Okay, Thomas,’ said Martin. ‘I leave now.’
It took almost half an hour for Ned to find the circuit diagram that Babe had drawn and two hours for him to be sure that he had memorised and understood it properly.
Paul came on duty at supper-time and Ned practised without the teaspoon by engaging Paul in brief conversation just as he was pulling the door closed.
‘Oh by the way,’ he said, holding the door by the handle on the inside and talking through the gap. ‘Before you lock up. You couldn’t do me a favour could you? In return for me teaching you the nicknames of all the British football clubs. Just a small thing.’
‘Favour?’ Paul looked worried.
‘You wouldn’t have a piece of chewing gum, would you?’
Paul grinned. ‘Maybe at supper time. I’ll see.’
‘Thanks. Are Trondheim playing today?’
‘Sure they are playing today.’
‘Good luck then,’ said Ned cheerfully, pushing the door closed himself. ‘See you later.’
At nine o’clock Paul came in once more with a mug of hot chocolate and some pills.
‘What’s this?’ Ned was alarmed. ‘I’m not on medication.’
‘Dr Mallo is worried that you are upset about Babe,’
Paul explained. ‘They are not strong. Just to help you sleep.’
‘Okay then,’ said Ned cheerfully, slapping them to his mouth and swallowing. ‘Very thoughtful of the good doctor.’
‘And here is some chewing gum for you.
Ned took the stick of gum and beamed. ‘Hollywood, how glamorous! Paul, you’re a hero.’
‘Good night, Thomas. Have a good sleep.’
‘Oh tell me though,’ said Ned, stopping Paul from closing the door again. ‘How did Trondheim do?’
Ned held the spoon in his right hand, which he held casually against the side of the door. He leaned harder and harder, with only a gap of an inch through which he could talk to Paul, the handle of the spoon pressing against the sprung lock.
‘Three goals to one? A great victory for you,’ he said. ‘Well, I’ll see you in the morning perhaps. Goodnight.’
With one last push, Ned closed the door. The spoon handle projected into the room from the gap between the door and the jamb. As Paul’s footsteps died away down the corridor, Ned pulled at the door, which gave. The spoon was holding back the lock spring. Almost sobbing with relief, Ned returned to his desk, spat out the sleeping pills and for the last time unfolded Babe’s circuit diagram.
At what he judged to be a time somewhere between half past two and three in the morning, he went to his door and pulled it open. The spoon dropped to the floor with a metallic clatter and, cursing himself as the sound rang around the corridor, Ned stooped to pick it up.
No sound came from any part of the building as he walked past the empty sun-room, chewing on his Hollywood gum. Only the clicking of the bones in his bare feet and toes disturbed the huge vacuum of silence that hung over the building like a shroud.
When he reached the door to Mallo’s office, he listened for a minute before entering. Once inside, he switched on the desk light and looked around, blinking at the sudden glare. The curtains were drawn, but there would be a line of light showing under the door. He knew there was very little time to lose. He went straight to a wooden box on the wall, opened it and took out a key. An impulse made him take out another, smaller key and try it in the lock of the small grey filing cabinet against the opposite wall. The key fitted and Ned searched quickly about the rest of the office until he found a plastic shopping bag into which he pushed sheaf after sheaf of papers and files. Tying the top of the carrier bag in a tight knot, he took out the chewing gum, swallowed the small key, popped the gum back in his mouth, switched off the desk light and crept back out into the corridor.
As he approached the staff quarters, rhythmically chewing on his gum, he pressed the carrier-bag under his arm hard against his body to diminish the rustle it made as he walked. He could hear music playing and saw an oblong fall of light in the passageway ahead. The room where Paul would be sitting had a window that looked over the passageway through which Ned had to pass. He crept slowly towards it and had just dropped to his knees ready to crawl along the floor under the line of view when the door opened and Paul walked out. Ned’s heart jumped and his whole body froze. The carrier bag crackled, sounding in Ned’s ears like a truck running over a thousand plastic egg-cartons.
Paul crossed straight over into the room opposite without looking in Ned’s direction. The vigorous splash of a stream of urine tumbling into a lavatory bowl echoed around the corridor and trembling with relief, Ned rose and walked forward. As he passed the door he gave a quick glance to his left and saw Paul standing legs apart, his back to the corridor, shaking off and humming the Ode to Joy. He wore a tee-shirt and jeans and the unprecedented sight of such ordinary clothes awoke feelings of great excitement in Ned. They seemed to assure him that the outside world was real and within reach.
He rounded the corner and leant against the wall. The night was cool, but still he could feel trickles of cold sweat running from his temples onto the back of his neck. He stopped chewing and listened, his mouth open. He heard the sound of a flush, footsteps crossing the corridor and a door closing. Spearmint saliva was dribbling from his open mouth. He sucked it in and started to chew again.
On the wall opposite him he saw the winking green light of the alarm box. Tip-toeing across, he examined it close up, mentally laying Babe’s diagram of the control box over the real thing. The circuit that controlled the hospital corridor was designated as Zone 4. Ned took the key he had taken from Mallo’s office and tried to fit it into the master lock. It slipped out of the lock and for one heart-stopping moment he thought he might have swallowed the wrong key. He tried again and this time it slipped in easily. With a gulp of relief, he gave it a half turn to the right. The winking green light became a winking red light. Holding his breath, he flicked up the fourth in a row of dip-switches that ran the length of the control-box and moved the key another quarter turn to the right. He held it there for a second then switched it twice to the left, returning it to its original location. As the key passed from three o’clock on its way to the home position, the whole unit gave a quick blaring bleep of such intensity that Ned almost yelled in fright. Backing into the doorway opposite he waited, eyes fixed on the lights of the control box. The green light was flashing again, but there was a new red light next to it which winked four times in succession, paused then winked four times again, revealing to anyone who knew the system that Zone 4 had been by-passed. No doors opened or closed in the staff room around the corner and no alteration came in the volume of the music emerging from Paul’s radio. Only in Ned’s ears had the bleep blasted like a cavalry bugle sounding in hell. Approaching the alarm-box once more, Ned gently pulled out the key. The lights flashed as before but all was quiet. He pulled a tiny wad of gum from his mouth and pressed it over the winking red beam, tamping it firmly so that no light leaked out from the sides. He stepped back to look.
It worried him that whoever disabled the alarm in the morning would spot the little plug of chewing-gum. If they noticed it
Satisfied finally that everything appeared normal, he put the key in his mouth and moved silently towards the doors that led to the hospital wing.
Babe was dead and he, Ned, had not felt more alive for over twenty years. The blood was singing in his ears, his heart thumped and banged in his chest like a slapping belt-driven engine and every nerve in his body vibrated with power and energy. No matter what happened to him now he knew he could never regret the return of so much intense excitement. If Dr Mallo and all the staff were to leap out from the next doorway, if Rolf were to pin him to the wall and dislocate his shoulders again and all privileges, books and papers were taken away for ever, if he were made to subsist on nothing from now on but a regime of chlorpromazine and electric shocks, still it would have been worth it just to have experienced this short burst of true living.
Dr Mallo and the staff did not leap out from the next doorway. The next doorway led to the room adjacent to the ward where Babe had died and the hospital wing remained as quiet as the tomb it was serving as. Ned put his hand to the doorknob and turned the handle. If he had made a mistake with the alarm-box he would discover it now. He pushed the door open. No bells jangled, no sirens wailed. All was silent. He closed the door behind him and felt for a light-switch.
He had found himself in a store room whose walls were lined with shelves filled with rows of medical supplies. In the centre of the room was a trestle-table on which stood a packing case about seven feet long and three feet wide with thick rope handles attached to the end sides. Ned approached the table and laid his hands on the lid of the packing case.
‘Hello, Babe,’ he whispered. ‘So far so good.’
He laid down the carrier bag and looked about him. The teaspoon was still gripped in his left hand but he had hoped he might find something stronger. He searched the shelves and saw nothing that would help him. He had almost given up when he glimpsed the end side of a metallic blue toolbox under the table itself.
Helping himself to a heavy-handled chisel, Ned set to work on prising the lid free, being careful not to bend any of the nails. It took close to fifteen minutes and Ned was sweating profusely by the time he lifted the lid clear and laid it on the floor.
Inside the crate Babe’s body was covered in a white sheet. Ned swallowed, gripped the fabric and plucked it away. He almost screamed in shock.
Babe was smiling. It was the smile that Ned had come to love over the last ten years. It was the wicked grin of complicity, excitement and pleasure that always preceded a new lesson in a new field.
Ned leaned down and stroked Babe’s beard.
‘Here we go,’ he said.
Ned was prepared to find the body heavy and had planned in his mind all evening how he would set about lifting Babe out of the crate. In his mind he had imagined that he would put a hand under each of his arms, summon up all his strength and heave until Babe’s body was draped face down over Ned’s back in a kind of fireman’s lift. What Ned had not foreseen was the enormous strain this would throw on his weak shoulders. As he strained at Babe’s dead weight he could feel the socket of the left shoulder grinding in the old familiar way. He had not put one of them out for at least seven or eight years and while he knew perfectly well how to snap the socket back, tonight he could not allow anything to disable him. He decided to try letting his right shoulder take the weight instead. He drew in nine or ten sharp lungfuls of breath and pulled.
Staggering from the table with Babe over his shoulder, Ned sank down to the floor, sweat pouring from him and his right shoulder on fire with pain. Babe’s head banged against the floor and his body tumbled to the ground with a crack of bone as the neck snapped like a dry twig.
Ned rose unsteadily to his feet and gently stretched out his arms. The right shoulder gave a small click but held in its socket. Inhaling and exhaling deeply, Ned forced his breathing to slow to a calmer rhythm and waited for the trembling in his arms and legs to stop. Stretching and inhaling deeply once more he switched off the lights, opened the door and listened. Satisfied that no sound other than the thumping of his heart pierced the deep black silence of the night, he bent down and hooked a hand under each of Babe’s arms.
He pulled the body slowly along the corridor of the hospital wing and reached the alarm-box. The radio around the corner was playing music. Ned recognised it to be Grieg’s
He dragged the body around the corner and laid it down face up. Crouching at Babe’s feet, he pushed him forward along the ground and past the door to the staff room. If Paul came out for another pee, he could not help but trip over the corpse and all would be lost. Bent as low as possible without losing his purchase on the soles of Babe’s feet, Ned pushed again. He was now directly below the window and he pushed faster and faster, wishing that the radio had programmed something louder and more percussive. If it was to be funereal, why not Siegfried’s
Back in his room, it took another shoulder-wrenching effort to heave Babe onto the bed. He did so without first pulling back the blankets and had to rock the body backwards and forwards on its side before he could loosen the bed sheets and cover Babe up, cursing himself for his stupidity. He imagined Babe too tutting at such a lack of foresight and common sense.
‘Sorry,’ he whispered.
Ned arranged the head on the pillow, pulled up the blankets and bent down to lay a final kiss on Babe’s head. ‘Goodbye my best and dearest friend. Whatever happens, you have saved my life.’
On his way back to the store room Ned returned to Mallo’s office and replaced the alarm-key, parking the residue of his gum under the doctor’s grand leather chair. One day Dr Mallo would find it and wonder how it got there.
Ducking under the staff-room window, from which Rossini’s overture to the
He could not afford now to make the slightest mistake and he prepared everything he needed with meticulous care. He dropped the carrier bag into the crate and looked around the room. An idea had come to him as he had been dragging Babe’s body along the corridors and he searched the shelves now until he came upon a box marked ‘Diacetylmorphine EP’. He ripped it open and emptied its contents, dozens and dozens of polythene bags, into the crate, throwing in for good measure a polythene bag filled with syringes. He looked down and saw that there was room for another boxful too. And another. After a moment’s thought he added a waste disposal sack, large enough to contain all the polythene bags and the carrier bag he had taken from Mallo’s office too.
His initial plan had been to cannibalise screws from the hinge of the door and work them into the inside of the lid using the tea-spoon as a screw-driver, but he discovered that the blue toolbox contained a small jar of wood-screws and even a brace and selection of drill bits. One thing he could not find however was rope, so he tore strips from the sheet that had covered Babe’s body and plaited them tightly together. He held this home-made rope against the inside of the top of the crate and drilled with the brace, being careful not to break through to the other side of the lid. He screwed the plaited cloth tightly into the wood, with just enough give to offer a firm hand hold, which he tested by tugging on it with all his strength until he could be sure that the cloth would not rip and that the screws would hold fast.
Ned now laid the lid on top of the crate, lining up the nails with their original holes. He pushed down and saw that three of the nails, instead of finding their holes, jumped up proud. He readjusted each one and tried again. When he was reasonably sure that each nail would find home he pulled off the lid once more and laid it upside down crossways over the crate.
He gave a final look around the room, kicking the toolbox under the table into its original position. He glanced about the shelves and down at the floor. With the exception of the lid lying across the crate, everything was as it had been when he had first walked in.
Drawing in a deep breath, Ned switched off the light and moved slowly forward in the pitch darkness until he felt his leg bump against the table. He climbed onto it and stood slowly up, his head nearly brushing the ceiling. He picked up the lid and felt at it until his fingers closed on the loop of cloth. He lifted the lid by this handle and, holding it in front of him like a Norman shield, he stepped into the crate and lay back on his bed of polythene. Manoeuvring the lid into position and satisfying himself that, so long as he pulled down on his plaited handle, all was well, Ned concentrated so hard on staying awake that he fell asleep almost instantly.
The bang of the store-room door opening awoke Ned with a jolt. Tiny slivers of light pierced the darkness of the packing-crate and at first he was convinced that too much time had passed. Perhaps they had decided to keep the body longer and send it on an evening boat. Babe would already have been discovered in Ned’s room and the hunt would be up. He cursed himself for sleeping. If he had stayed awake he might have realised that too much time had passed and managed to escape another way. Babe had assured him that the island was at least thirty miles from land, but attempting to swim for freedom would have been better than ignominious discovery here.
The sound of weary morning voices yawning and moaning reassured him. Working his hand into the cloth loop, Ned pulled down on the lid as hard as he could and waited, hardly daring to breath.
Two male voices spoke in Danish.
‘We’ll take it on our shoulders.’
‘What’s the rope on the ends for?’
‘Yah, but it will bite into our hands. Believe me, I’ve done this before. On our shoulders. You first, one, two…
‘I thought it was going to be an old man. Christ, he’s heavy.’
‘It’ll be the wood mostly. Come on.’
‘What is it?’
‘You were supposed to hammer the nails in. I just cut my finger!’
Ned lost all sense of direction as his body bumped back and forth inside the crate. He was dropped onto the floor twice when doors had to be unlocked and opened and each time Ned was fearful that the lid would bounce up and he would be discovered. He prepared in his mind the possibility of having to fight for it and run.
Finally, cold morning air seeped through the sides of the box and he heard the cry of gulls followed by the groaning creak of a sliding van door. The crate was pushed with bone-jarring carelessness onto a metal floor, the door slammed shut and an engine started.
Ned recalled the infernal torture of his last journey in a van. He saw again the two dead eyes of the men who had kicked him to unconsciousness and heard the rhythmical flipping of tyres over a ribbed causeway. He remembered Mr Gaine and he remembered every detail of those two brutal men. He could not, however, reassemble in his mind the identity of the Ned who had undergone those infernal torments of soul and body. That Ned had been as innocent, terrified and blinded by the world and its cruelty as a newborn puppy. He had been a particle, without will, direction or purpose. That Ned had been dead for almost twenty years: all the life had been snuffed out of him the day Rolf had dislocated his left shoulder and murdered his last remaining shreds of hope and faith. The Ned who travelled now was an entirely different being, a man of iron will, an avenging angel – an instrument of God.
Ned stood up on the rocks and turned to look at the ferry half a mile out to sea. When she put in, the crew would carry the wooden box, now weighed down with sea-chain and iron tackle, to the dock where, after a time, it would be opened and the deception discovered. Perhaps the island had already sent a message to shore and Ned was already a wanted man.
He shivered and unwound from his aching shoulders a large yellow oilskin bag that he had stolen from the captain’s locker on board the ferry. In the locker he had also found clothing and a wallet containing two and a half thousand Danish kroner. He had no idea whether it was a fortune or barely enough for a small breakfast.
Half an hour later he walked into a crowded caf? on the Еrhus road. He had not been surprised to discover that he was in Denmark. Babe had told him that the hospital island lay in the Kattegat, somewhere between the Swedish coast and northern Jutland. Ned marched straight to the counter and ordered a cup of coffee and a plate of eggs and bacon. He took a seat and looked around him. He had seen five large lorries parked outside and decided that his best course was boldness and speed.
‘Hey!’ he called out above the noise of the juke box. Everyone in the caf? looked up and stared at him. ‘Anybody here going south? I need to be in Germany by tonight. I’ll go halves on the fuel.’
Most of the men in Ned’s eyeline shrugged and looked back down at their plates. One or two shook their heads regretfully, but no one responded. Damn, thought Ned, what do I do now?
A voice behind him spoke up in broken Danish. ‘I have to be in Hamburg tonight. You are welcome to ride with me.
‘Fantastic!’ cried Ned, in German. ‘You’ve saved my life!’
‘Oh, you’re German,’ said the other. ‘Thank Christ for that. Danish is a nightmare.’
‘I know,’ said Ned with a sympathetic smile. ‘Trying to speak it gives you a nosebleed. Let me buy you a cup of coffee, you don’t mind waiting while I dive into a quick breakfast do you?’
‘No problem,’ said the other, coming round to join Ned at his table and extending his hand. ‘Dieter, by the way.
‘Karl,’ said Ned. ‘Pleased to know you. Ah,
Someone had left a newspaper on the table and Ned searched it for a currency table. With relief, he worked out that he was carrying over two hundred pounds. Unless inflation had gone entirely insane over the last twenty years, he reckoned it should be enough to get him where he wanted to go.
Ned rode up front with Dieter, who told him that he had picked up a consignment of paper pulp in Skagen fifty miles north of the roadside caf? they were leaving, which was just outside the port of Еlborg. Ned calculated that they still had a drive of a hundred and fifty miles south to the German border. The ferry would be putting in at the harbour in Еlborg now. It was all a question of whether or not Dr Mallo had decided to alert the police. He would have discovered that there were papers missing from his filing-cabinet and Ned was confident that this would prevent him from contacting anyone in authority. Perhaps Mallo would call Oliver Delft, probably he would not dare. In Mallo’s position, Ned would fabricate a death certificate and try and forget that the troublesome Englishman had ever existed.
Dieter was not a demanding conversationalist. His world appeared to revolve around his wife Trude and their children, of whom there were photographs displayed all around the cabin, and football of which Ned knew little. What he did know was confined to what he had learned of the Scandinavian leagues from Paul. The doings of Trondheim held no interest for Dieter whatsoever.
‘Not much traffic,’ Ned remarked at one point.
‘April sixteenth,’ said Dieter. ‘It’s a public holiday here. The queen’s birthday, so they tell me.’
‘Ah, of course.’
They stopped for lunch outside Еrhus and here Ned made his first mistake. They were sitting at a table and Ned picked up a small object that Dieter had brought with him into the caf?.
‘You’re joking!’ Dieter smiled broadly. His eyes narrowed when he saw that Ned was completely serious. ‘Are you telling me that you don’t know what this is?’
Ned realised that he had blundered and tried to laugh it off. ‘What I mean to say is,’ he said, ‘I’ve not seen one like this before
‘Not seen one like this? Look around you, man!’
Ned glanced at the other tables and saw at least six almost identical objects.
‘Well, it’s the
‘Where have you been the last ten years?’ Dieter asked. ‘Where on God’s earth is there a place without mobile phones?’
‘A prison more like.’
‘No, no, a hospital. You must believe me, Dieter. I’m fine now. Totally well, but I have … you know, missed out on some things.’
Dieter let Ned back into the lorry, but he was more silent as they continued the journey south towards Еbenrе and the German border. Ned sat beside him, thinking furiously. He came to the conclusion that his best recourse was a kind of limited honesty. The last thing he wanted was for Dieter to flag down a police car. It would be hard to explain the quantity of drugs packed into his oilskin bag.
‘I’ll be straight with you, Dieter,’ he said at last. ‘I’ve escaped from a Danish hospital. My family put me there because of a drug problem, but I’m fine now. Really. Absolutely fine. I’m heading for Hanover to be with my girlfriend. I’ve messed up my life, but I’m better now. I just need help to get home.’
‘How long were you there?’ asked Dieter, his eyes firmly on the road.
‘Nearly a year.
‘Nearly a year and you don’t know what a mobile phone is?’
‘They gave me electric shock therapy. I forget things sometimes. What can I say? I’m not a bad man, Dieter, I promise you that.’
‘Sure,’ said Dieter and he fell quiet again.
After an agonising silence which Ned did not dare break with pleadings or further justification, Dieter spoke again, shyly and with some embarrassment. ‘Me, I had a drug problem too some years back. I am a trained engineer, you know? I had a very good job, lots of money. I got a little too fond of the heroin and I lost my job. With thanks to my marvellous wife Trude and the mercy and love of my saviour Jesus Christ I am now a clean and healthy person. I shall take you to Hamburg and introduce you to my church. A church is better than any hospital. Only the Lord can help people like us.’
‘Bless you,’ whispered Ned. ‘You are truly a Good Samaritan.’
‘I suppose,’ Dieter went on, after blushing slightly at the compliment, ‘that you do not have a passport?’
‘No,’ replied Ned. ‘I’m afraid I don’t.’
‘They do not always require them at the border, but even if they do not, the customs will certainly need to check my consignment papers. It is better they do not see you. We are ten miles away. I shall stop at the next filling-station and you must hide amongst the cargo. They do not search.’
‘Let me give you some money for the diesel.’
For a terrible moment Ned thought that he had said something wrong. Perhaps diesel was a thing of the past and lorries were now fuelled by methane, or hydrogen or God knew what else.
‘Money? I do not want your money,’ Dieter said. ‘I do this for my Saviour. That is my reward.’
As they drove the ten miles to the filling station, Ned, as gently as he dared, probed Dieter about his drug habit and how much money it had cost him.
‘Heroin is that expensive?’ he said wonderingly.
‘Sure, but it is cheaper if you smoke it,’ Dieter said. ‘You must know this, surely? What was your drug?’
‘Your family sent you to a hospital for
‘My parents are very old-fashioned,’ Ned said, uncomfortably aware that there was much about the world he had yet to learn.
Approaching the traffic-lights at the outskirts of Hamburg, Ned felt a pang of guilt as he grabbed his oilskin bag, opened the door and jumped down onto the street.
‘Sorry, Dieter,’ he called back into the cabin. ‘But I really don’t think your church can help me.’
Dieter shook his head sorrowfully and pulled away with a hiss of brakes and a big double honk from his horn. Ned skipped aside and waved and waved until the lorry disappeared around a corner. He hoped that Dieter could at least see this last gesture in his wing-mirrors and know that his help had been appreciated.
Which indeed it had been. Ned had been crammed amongst the bales of pulp for no more than an hour either side of the border. The doors at the back had not even been opened, though the side of the lorry right next to Ned’s ear had been slapped twice as they had been waved through, causing him a ringing in the ears which was still with him. Dieter was amused and teased him about it all through Schleswig-Holstein.
‘It was the Lord speaking to you, Karl. Take my word for it.’
Ned turned now and looked around him. It was getting late and there was much to do. At a small Sparkasse he changed his kroner into Deutschmarks, then crossed the street to the underground station and took a train to St Pauli. He had a strong feeling that Babe was watching him now and would disapprove violently of what he was about to do.
From St Pauli he crossed the street into the Reeperbahn. Sitting at a window in the Bar Bemmel, opposite the Lehmitz, he sat nursing a glass of milk as the street outside warmed up into a whirl of touristic Friday night frenzy. The lights, the colour, the noise, the music were all absolutely alien to him. He saw men and women with jewellery and metal bars affixed to their noses, ears and eyebrows. He saw black men with dyed blonde hair, and orientals with orange hair. He saw men passing by holding hands. Once a woman with a shaved head poked her tongue out at him as she passed. There had been what looked like a metal stud in her tongue. Ned blinked and swallowed hard.
‘Oh, brave new world, that has such creatures in it … he murmured to himself and shook his head, like a dog that has just taken a bath.
At the U-Bahn station he had bought a map and three tourist information booklets which he had read twice through before a waitress approached him and told him that if he was going to stay here he would need to drink more than one single glass of milk over the course of two hours.
‘Of course,’ said Ned. ‘Bring me one of those,’ he commanded, pointing at a pink looking cocktail at the table next to his.
‘All cocktails five marks,’ said the waitress.
Ned supposed (indeed had seen) that his Danish fisherman’s outfit of jeans, thick white pullover and donkey-jacket were not the usual habiliments favoured by the night people of Hamburg and he smiled understandingly as he produced a ten mark note.
‘I have been fishing all day. Keep the change and have a drink yourself.’
The suspicious scowl was instantly replaced by a happy grin. ‘Thank you, sir!’
‘Er, I forgot to ask,’ he said when the cocktail arrived. ‘What’s in it exactly?’
‘Cranberry, grapefruit and vodka,’ came the reply. ‘It’s called a Sea Breeze.’
‘Good title,’ said Ned, sipping cautiously. ‘Mm … delicious.’
‘You’re are a tourist in Hamburg?’ The waitress pointed at the map and guides on the table in front of Ned.
‘That’s right. Just looking for a good time. Is this a dangerous area?’
‘The Reeperbahn? No!’ she laughed at the idea. ‘Once maybe, perhaps yes, but today it is all just businessmen and tourists.’
‘Ah,’ said Ned, ‘so there are no drug dealers or anything like that?’ He put the question innocently enough, but held the waitress’s eyes steadily.
She leaned forward to wipe down his table and whispered in his ear. ‘You looking for something perhaps? You can pay?’
‘I’ll call my friend. He knows people. Are you interested in going
Ned pondered her strange use of these American English phrases before the meaning became apparent to him.
‘Ah, I understand,’ he said.
‘Okay.’ She looked a little surprised. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Thank you… er, I don’t know your name.
‘Thank you, Cosima. Karl Freytag at your service.
Ned watched as Cosima went behind the bar to make a phone call. After less than thirty seconds she put down the phone and nodded to him. He nodded back and raised his glass to her in salutation. Picking up his oilskin, he went to the gents to prepare for his meeting.
The man who came into the Bar Bemmel half an hour later was older than Ned, perhaps as old as fifty, which surprised him. He looked more like a successful publisher or prosperous advertising executive than the tattooed leather-jacketed gangster that Ned had imagined.
‘Gunther. I understand that you are anxious to do business,’ said the man sitting down without a handshake. ‘How may I assist you, Herr Freytag?’
‘I want you to take what I am holding under the table,’ said Ned. ‘It is a syringe… don’t worry it’s capped.’
‘Hey listen,’ said Gunther, starting to rise. ‘I’m in the business of selling, not buying.’
‘Then find me someone who
Gunther paused. ‘How much?’
‘I have half a million marks worth, which you can at least double if you cut it sensibly. I’ll take four hundred thousand in cash, a usable credit card and any contact that will allow me to buy a passport.’
Gunther looked Ned right in the eyes for perhaps five seconds before reaching under the table and taking the syringe.
‘Give me some more for testing.’
Ned was prepared for this. ‘Leave two thousand marks as a deposit,’ he said.
Gunther nodded and Ned passed a small vial under the table.
‘I make a phone call,’ Gunther stood up and took a small mobile phone from his pocket, moving away out of earshot. Ned watched him light a cigarette, dial and speak into the phone. He marvelled at the technology and wondered what the range of such telephones might be. Ned was too far away from Gunther to be able to pick up any of his conversation, but when he returned to the table everything seemed set up and he smiled a brief, tight smile.
‘Your two thousand’s in there,’ he said dropping a cigarette packet on the table. ‘I shall return in one hour. If everything is satisfactory we will go together to a place where the rest of your goods will also be checked out. Cosima is watching you. If you leave with my two thousand marks before I return, you will be followed and dealt with. Dealt with very harshly. If all goes well a passport can be ready for you in two days, the credit card and cash you will have tonight. You understand and approve?’
‘Perfectly,’ Ned extended his hand and smiled. ‘A bottle of champagne will await your return.’
Five minutes after Gunther had gone, Ned called Cosima over to him.
‘Thank you, Cosima,’ he said handing her a hundred mark note. ‘You have been very kind.’
Cosima smiled and tucked the note into her apron. ‘You’re welcome.’
‘So Gunther is your boyfriend?’
She laughed at this. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘He’s my father.’
Ned tried not to look surprised. ‘I see. Oh, tell me something, Cosima,’ he said, a thought occurring to him. ‘Which, in your opinion, is the best hotel in Hamburg?’
She looked at Ned through half closed eyes, like an artist sizing up a model. ‘For you, I should say the Vier Jahreszeiten on Neuer Jungfernstieg. Very classy. Very old-fashioned. Just like you.’
‘You flatter me. One more thing, before you bring me a cup of coffee and a glass of milk.’ The effect of the Sea Breeze was making him dizzy and light-headed. ‘Will I find a decent clothes shop in the area still open in an hour or so? I need some luggage too.’
‘This is Hamburg!’ said Cosima. ‘Nothing closes.’
‘Good. Perhaps we can go shopping together. After I have concluded business with you father, naturally.’
Cosima smiled happily. ‘My favourite occupation. Hugo Boss, I think. Something dark and elegant.’
The platinum American Express card that Gunther had found for Ned was in the name of Paul Kretschmer, and the blonde woman in black at the desk scarcely glanced at it as she slid it through the side of a machine she kept under the desk and passed it back to him with his room key. Ned supposed it was some kind of cash register, but it was unlike any he had seen before.
‘Oh, by the way,’ he said. ‘I need to fly to Geneva on Monday morning.’ He gave her a folded hundred mark note and his best smile. ‘Be good enough to arrange it for me would you?’
‘Certainly, Herr Kretschmer,’ she beamed at him. ‘With pleasure. Do you prefer Swiss Air or Lufthansa?’
‘I tell you what,’ said Ned,
‘First Class?’ she frowned slightly. ‘I am not sure they have First Class on such a short flight.’
‘Whatever…’ Ned waved a hand airily. ‘I’m sure you’ll find me the best seat.’
‘Of course, Herr Kretschmer. And may I help you with anything else this evening?’
‘It’s been a long day,’ Ned replied. ‘Nothing but a shower and bed. No calls please.’
He crossed over to the lifts, trying not to look impressed by the profusion of late nineteenth-century marble, mahogany and oak panelling all around him. No calls! He smiled at his own impudence.
The receptionist watched his firm athletic stride as he walked to the lifts and turned to the manager.
‘Oh, my God,’ she said with a sigh. ‘I think I’m in love.’
‘Me too,’ said the manager.
Ned spent Saturday morning playing with the television remote control and reading the magazines in his suite. Gunther called him up at lunchtime and invited him to dinner at his flat, just around the corner from the hotel.
‘I should be honoured and delighted,’ Ned replied. ‘I’m going to do some shopping this afternoon, I don’t suppose your charming daughter would be kind enough to escort me around the town? I assure you my intentions are strictly honourable.’
Gunther chuckled down the telephone. ‘That would disappoint her terribly,’ he said. ‘She was hoping they were anything but!’
With Cosima’s help Ned bought a laptop, a printer and a large number of books on computing and the internet. The magazines in his room had seemed to be full of articles on this and he wanted to understand everything he could about a world that appeared to be so important. He had asked Cosima shyly what the internet was and she had given an explanation that had left him more confused than before.
The shop that sold the computer had seemed to be nothing more nor less than an Aladdin’s cave of incomprehensible magic. Ned had tried not to look astonished at the pictures on the screens, at the colour photographs printed out, at the scanners, video cameras, global positioning devices and hand-held electronic diaries that were shown to him. Compact discs reminded him of an episode of
At the railway station overlooking the Alster, he sat in a photo-booth and had six passport photographs taken.
As he waited for the photographs to appear he murmured under his breath. ‘Thank God not everything has changed. These machines, I remember well.’
It took the hotel porter two journeys to transfer all Ned’s purchases from the taxi to his suite and he stood looking at the pile of shopping in the drawing-room with a look of such comical bewilderment on his face that Cosima reached up and kissed him.
‘Where have you come from, Karl?’
‘You mustn’t call me Karl,’ said Ned. ‘Here I am Paul Kretschmer.’
‘You have come from another planet. From heaven, perhaps?’
‘From heaven?’ Ned smiled. ‘No, I don’t think you could call it that.’
‘Where then? You have never seen a computer, a mobile phone, a CD, a Palm Pilot, a video camera…, where have you come from?’
She pulled him towards the bedroom, but he braced his legs like a mule.
‘So. It follows that you are also probably a virgin. Don’t be frightened.’
It struck Ned, given all that he had done in the last twenty-four hours, and the strange universe he had emerged into after eighteen years that he
‘All right,’ he said following Cosima into the bedroom. ‘Teach me, then. I’m a fast learner.’
The following afternoon Gunther paid a visit to the Vier Jahreszeiten and with a
Gunther turned to his daughter with a look of astonishment. ‘Which
‘Ah, yes… of course.’ Ned smiled. ‘I… er… I forgot for a moment.’
‘Forgot?’ Gunther stared at him in disbelief.
‘And my last explanation of you,’ sighed Cosima, ‘was that you might be a lost Berliner from the East, tortured by the Stasi and only just returned to society. Now I am completely mystified.’
‘Who are you?’ Gunther asked. ‘Who the hell are you? You’re a German but you know nothing of Germany.’
‘Let’s just say I’ve been away. Does it matter? We have done business and we have helped each other. I am grateful to you both for everything.’ Ned picked up a bottle of champagne. ‘Tomorrow morning early, I fly to Switzerland, so let us drink to each other and part friends.’
‘Here,’ said Cosima, taking the bottle, ‘it helps if you
‘My plans are uncertain. ‘Tell me, Gunther. Do you happen to have any contacts in Geneva who might be useful to me?’
‘You have more to sell? If you do, believe me I would be happy to take any surplus off your hands.’
‘No, no. I may need another passport, that’s all.’
‘You should see my friend Nikki,’ said Gunther, scribbling a number on a card. ‘He’s a Russian, but nothing happens in Geneva without his permission.’
‘Thank you.’ Ned took the card and handed Gunther a glass.
Cosima was inclined to be tearful as she left with her father. ‘I will never see you again,’ she sniffed, clinging to Ned’s jacket.
‘Nonsense. You have been a wonderful friend to me, of course we shall see each other again. I do not forget friends. I will call for you one day.’
‘Come, my dear,’ said Gunther from the doorway. ‘Goodbye, Karl, Paul, whatever your name is. If you do happen across another consignment – ‘
‘You will be the first to know,’ Ned assured him.
He closed the door and leaned against it.
Outside in the corridor he heard Gunther hiss to his daughter. ‘A mental patient, you mark my words.’
‘Daddy, he’s the sanest man either of us has ever met and you know it.’
‘He can’t even open a champagne bottle!’
‘And what proof of lunacy is that? You can’t open a pickle jar.’
‘Who else could get hold of medical grade stuff like that? It all fits, I tell you.’
They continued arguing as they went around the corner towards the lifts.
Ned smiled and looked at the room and the parcels around it. He had a great deal of packing to do.
Ned walked into the hall of the Banque Cotter Cantonaise and smiled at the expensively pearled female cashier.
‘I wonder if I might see the manager about my account?’ It was all very well for Babe to write down numbers and passwords, but how did one actually go about the business of withdrawing money from a Swiss bank? Ned was entirely prepared to be disappointed. He imagined a smooth-faced bank official staring at him with supercilious contempt.
‘This account was opened thirty years ago, sir. It cannot be yours.’
‘I … it was my father’s.’
‘We have no instructions from him. Do you have papers, sir? Accreditation of any kind?’
In his mind, the striped-trousered official would press a bell under his desk and Ned would be tossed onto the pavement or even sent to gaol for attempted fraud. Or perhaps the British had got there first and left word with the bank.
‘Sir, this account was closed down many years ago. Our security officer will now escort you to the British Consulate.’
Maybe the whole thing had all been a figment of Babe’s imagination.
In the event things proved much simpler.
The cashier passed him a form and he filled in the account number. There was no space for passwords. She took the form, looked briefly down at it and, with the bang of an electric lock, disappeared into a room behind the guichet. Within a very short space of time a spruce young man, close enough to the striped-trousered official of Ned’s imagination to make him smile, came through into the banking hall.
‘How do you do, sir?’ he said in English, extending a hand. ‘Pierre Gossard. Would you like to come through?’
Ned found himself in an expensively furnished office whose main features were a Louis Quinze desk and two matching chairs. Gossard sat down behind the desk and pointed to one of the chairs.
‘Just one or two formalities,’ he said, tapping into the keyboard of a desktop computer which was perched incongruously on the heavily ornamented desk. ‘Perhaps you would be good enough to write for me the opening password phrase?’
He passed over a compliment slip and Ned wrote down ‘Simon Says’ and handed the slip across the desk to Gossard who glanced at it briefly, looked at his computer screen and nodded. He passed the paper back to Ned.
‘And the secondary phrase?’
Ned wrote ‘This is a stick-up’ and passed it over again. Gossard smiled thinly and pushed the compliment slip into a small metal box.
‘Security paper,’ he explained. ‘It is no more. Well, everything seems to be satisfactory, my dear sir. How may I help you?’
‘Well, firstly I’d like to know how much is in my account.’
‘Mm-hm …‘ Gossard typed at the computer. ‘You understand that since the account is linked to leading share indices on the European bourses I can only give you the balance as from close of trading on Friday. Quite a substantial sum has accrued over the past thirty years.’
Ned nodded as if talk of share indices, bourses and substantial sums was a matter of everyday conversation to him. Gossard wrote a figure down on a fresh compliment slip and handed it to Ned who looked down.
‘That’s in Swiss Francs?’ he said gulping slightly.
‘Just so,’ said Gossard.
Ned swallowed again and did a rapid calculation in his head. Roughly two and half francs to a pound. Good heavens.
‘As for what I would like to do with the account,’ he said as naturally as he could manage. ‘I should like a little time to think. Perhaps we can meet again on Friday? You don’t need anything else from me, I take it?’
‘No indeed, sir. Since your account is as old as it is, it does not fall under new disclosure rules. But it is not old enough to qualify for inspection under the recent Jewish reparation schemes.’
‘Excellent,’ said Ned. ‘Friday morning, eleven o’clock?’
‘I shall look forward to seeing you, sir.
Ned was still trembling when he reached his suite at the Hotel D’Angleterre. He sat on the balcony sipping coffee and looking out over the lake. He watched a rainbow shimmering in the spray of the fountain.
Staring into the rainbow, Ned wept.
‘Oh, Babe. Why aren’t you here with me?’
He looked down at a hotel notepad on which he had jotted a set of numbers.
‘It is indeed a substantial sum,’ he whispered to himself, the tears dropping down onto the paper. ‘Even with the price of a cup of coffee being what it is today, three hundred and twenty-four million pounds is still a substantial sum. Oh, Babe, there is such a thing as Justice. Truly there is.