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Secret Ballet: Part 5

Version: June 03, 2004

Go to Part 4 of Secret Ballet

Version: June 03, 2004

A clean break

The house is set back from the road behind a green lawn. The sound of the children playing was borne across the garden to the house. The lawn was screened from prying eyes by woods and mazes and pavillions. John mooched about the house in his pyjamas. He was bitterly ashamed of me for writing such lies. I had agonizing feelings of shame and guilt.

‘I want to keep you all in luxury.’ He was skirting the issue. I sensed that this was the overture to an argument.

‘Get to the point,’ I said. ‘It took you six weeks to get round to telling me about Felicity.’

He laced up his shoes slowly to delay the moment of decision. ‘I won't risk spoiling our relationship.’

‘Oh bosh. You don't really expect me to believe that.’

He chose every word with care: ‘I'll be quite honest with you, I haven't any faith in myself.’

Honesty? He doesn’t know the meaning of the word! My answer seemed to come almost directly from the subconscious. ‘No swifter than you, Father,’ I retorted.

His blond head swivelled toward me. ‘Don't try to be funny.’

‘The idea is to cut you down to size. You're not very good at breaking bad news, are you? Are you going to go?’

John's voice went on, tremulous yet determined. ‘You bet! No mess. No fuss. Just a nice clean simple exit.’

‘That's going to cause me a lot of trouble.’

‘At least I've got it off my chest now.’

John and I broke up. He began with the memorable line: ‘Let's have an end of all this. I don't want to quarrel with you. You'll be glad to see me go. ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish,’ you'll say. It's better to make a clean break.’

‘I was a fool ever to marry you. You might as well come clean about that blonde you've been seeing. Ever since then you've treated me like a doormat.’

‘Come to think of it, why should I apologize? This is the last time I ever want to see you.’ He assured me that I was physically unattractive.

I tried to imitate his accent and the quaver which could sometimes be heard in his voice: ‘I have nothing to say until I see my lawyer.’

The brevity and frailty of human existence... Perhaps, after all, he would profit from a change of scene. He decided on that account to leave the country. A man who rebels suddenly against twenty-five years of routine—even the wilder excesses of Masculine Logic can hardly explain it.

‘Be your age, John, for goodness sake! You are too old to start afresh somewhere you don't know.’

He strove to retain a degree of amiability. ‘Twenty-five years ago, I went to the tropics for the first time. I wanted to go out to the colonies and start a new life. I have never revisited it for fear of spoiling my memories. I now feel the time has come to change things...a nomadic way of life...it's time to go. Don't worry. If anything should happen, I can take care of myself.’ He felt in his bones that he could do it.

I had a small ancillary sleeping tent, shaped like a cone.

‘Could I borrow this off you for a while?’

‘It's yours,’ I said, politely, but coldly. He smiled rather inanely. The question hung in the air: how is he going to tell his father?

He left it to us to try and sort it out. He packed the barest minimum of clothing. He thrust clothes higgledy-piggledy into plastic bags. Without a word or a backward glance, he walked away. He packed his bags and drove to the airport. They all heaved a sigh of relief when he finally departed.

All marriage break-ups are traumatic. I can't help feeling spurned. Men seem to be more skilled at breaking off relationships than women. He never wrote to me to explain his decision.

His thoughts turned to Calcutta; he thought of the life of ease and luxury that awaited him in Bombay. He escaped the clutches of the welfare service and the law: he vanished leaving massive arrears. The campgrounds he stopped at were filled with people. I knew that he had been in Cuba the preceding summer. They say he was in America; maybe it was the emptiness of the land that attracted him. He was rumored to be living in Detroit. Let's assume that he was... If any of his friends remarked on his sudden failure to appear I explained that he had gone to visit his father. He saw more than 800 children dying of starvation. It is morally wrong not to do more to help the poor. Mr Swallow himself is blissfully ignorant of his responsibility.

The first few days passed. I felt alienated, angry and alone. This has all come as a bit of a shock. You've got to have courage to live through something like that. The situation may improve but if the worst comes to the worst I'll have to sell the house. Because of the suddenness and persistence of the depression I saw my doctor. I'm not sleeping even with the prescription Ackerman gave me. What should you do if you or your friend feels suicidal? I'd scribble a note for Martha to find when she came in to clean.

Felicity was not to be found—not that day, nor the next day, nor the day after that. I marvelled at whatever blindness it had been that allowed me to stay in that hopeless relationship. Then I caught flu, which really knocked the stuffing out of me. I get terrible headaches but it helps if I lie down in the dark for a while.

A belt snapped in the vacuum cleaner today. I was eating nothing but quark (something between yoghurt and cottage cheese); depression often comes from bad eating. The children are acutely aware of what they have missed. Having to cope with their parents’ divorce can be really rough on children. Christopher was understandably beside himself with rage. ‘Don't be unhappy,’ Madeline begged. ‘I hate to see you looking so miserable.’ She broke out in a rash. My circulation deteriorated and I was always cold.

I was in the West End doing a bit of shopping. For her birthday I bought her a bicycle. I sat watching housewives bustle in and out of a supermarket. I did everything I could to hurt him, including sleeping around, roaming the night spots, getting high on speed or heroin. I started hitting the bottle every evening. That takes care of my anxieties to a certain extent.

I was wondering how much longer I could tolerate isolation. It was awful waiting for the phone to ring. I felt let down and depressed when he didn’t phone me.

‘I want to speak to Mr Lithgow, please.’

‘Who is calling?’


‘I'm sorry, Mr Lithgow is out.’

‘Would you ask him to call me back as soon as possible. The Hoover is on the blink again.’

‘Have you got an upright cleaner or one of those cylinder ones?’

‘A small upright model light enough to carry upstairs. I must go and make a phone call.’ Then the operator disconnected us. If you hear long bleeps, the phone is engaged.

We seldom stop to consider how few of the friends we have really do care. Days spread into long months. Why am I slaving away, running a house and family single-handed? My sister tried to cheer me up: ‘Whatever your crisis, it is important to realize that it has happened before.’ I sorted the socks, rolling them into neat little bundles. My heart ached for the lovers. Old Mr Swallow, bent and white-haired... During his last illness we only saw him twice. When the old man died the estate was carved up and sold. The funerary ceremonies occupied two days.

Waiting for bells to ring is a torment. The suspense claws at my heart.

The phone rang. It was George.

‘How are things? I hear that he's leaving. Is that right?’

‘I'm afraid so.’

‘He will manage better on his own. You'll bounce back, don't worry.’ There were times when he showed a curious insensitivity and lack of tact.

I had to resist the temptation of despair. ‘Can you come round this evening?’

‘I'm afraid not.’

‘I was banking on your coming today. Oh well, never mind..’

‘I can pop in and see you tomorrow.’

I really feel my age this morning. My face was an ashy grey.

‘Goodness, you look terrible! You still haven't told me anything.’

‘I will.’

George took out a bottle and a glass. ‘What an enormous relief you will feel for having made the break at last.’

‘I shall probably have another breakdown if I stay any longer in this house. My income now comes to £65 a week.’

‘If he doesn't leave his wife and kids provided for, he's a bum.’

I was blubbering helplessly, I was in despair, all hope gone.

It's often difficult for divorced parents to keep in close contact with their children. David climbed the narrow steps to the attic. A least for the moment they have a resting place and a home.

Writer’s block

I find it very difficult to work at home. I wrote tortuous essays for obscure journals. Writing essays should be an intellectual challenge rather than a chore. I feel very sluggish; I've had what they call writer's block. For no explicable reason your mind goes blank. Thoughts of my unwritten novel nagged me. The words won't come. I haven't really had a new idea in years. I decided to listen to some music and put Eric Satie into the cassette. Music has a tranquillizing effect and is astonishingly therapeutic. I fell asleep with my window closed tight.

Last night I dreamt that I was beaten up by Ernest Hemingway. I take mild tranquillisers every night during the week. I must stop this at once.

When I write words I write them in big letters. I came on the idea by pure chance. The effect is to bring out all sorts of things in the poetry. A determination to blur the line between art and reality...some will say it is dreamy, escapist, or utopian.

Writing is a continual process of stopping and starting. I keep going off on tangents that get me nowhere. It was soul-destroying work, akin to digging a hole and then filling it in again. I might as well have been down in the blackest pit, chained to a post, for all the difference the seasons meant to me. Eventually you become an automaton, saying the same dull things over and over again. I keep thinking I know all the answers and then going blank. I have lost my confidence: I never seem to accomplish anything.

The classic style is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional. Twenty years ago, when I was a student, I worshipped Conrad's novels. There are one or two really good novelists who bear comparison with past writers. Dorothy Sayers was a writer of tremendous brilliance. Her writing was curious—small sharp little letters with no capitals. In spite of chronic ill health, she wrote ten books. The basic theme of these stories never varies.

Why is it that the Arts are getting such a rough deal? How easy is it in Britain for novelists to get their work published? As soon as D.H. Lawrence kicked the bucket he started to become famous. The burden of his message did not strike me as being very original. D H Lawrence's most famous book is all about a gamekeeper and a lady. The vacuum left by religion has been filled by a kind of humanistic materialism. The term materialism emerges as the exact inversion of what it meant in earlier times. The claptrap that is often talked about the ‘dignity of man’ is unbelievable.

I arose at six; I just couldn't get off last night. The snow came in blanketing the mountains; branches break under their weight. I gazed out at the snow-encrusted landscape. A memory comes to me of snowfields in June. I've got that tune on the brain, a thing in the mind, a Utopia we secretly retreat to. Most of our decisions in day-to-day life are automatic. I want to try to break through conventional situations.

Five inches of snow had fallen and more was coming down. I sat in a low chair by the fire, reading. I spent far too much time communing with the dead. Each unsuccessful attempt to win fame brought me nearer to despair. I tried to keep as far away from people as possible.

The invention of writing was the most revolutionary of all human inventions. It has opened up new areas of experience. Sometimes just the act of writing down the problems straightens out your thinking. Jot down notes on thoughts as they come. As I write this I am confronted with rows of shelves loaded with books I haven't read. I'm not much of a reader.

I carried on with my Open University studies. I am looking for opportunities both in this country and abroad. It's no good sitting and waiting for success to come. I was writing off to various places in Britain asking about courses. I made a long-distance call to Aberdeen. Some bright spark at the university has lost my application.

British authors make relatively little impact abroad. I was at a reading of poems—a selection of Robert Browning's poems. He began by reading a poem of his own composition, a particularly luscious and fleshly poem. He spoke in a faint voice which carried no farther than the front three rows. He was not in the least disturbed, and carried on reading.

We are all living in the rat-race. Was the winning novel attractive enough for the five judges to ignore the claims of the other six authors? Liane Aukin carried off the Best Play Adaptation. She had written a book about her childhood, and a novel about the strikes in Jarrow. It came to me suddenly that what was wrong was that I was tired. I blew out my candle and went to sleep; I was just catching up on my sleep, that's all. At 9 o'clock I woke up and went for a Chinese.

I have been asked to write a biography of Dylan Thomas. The alarm was bleeping; it happens every blessed morning. My left arm was asleep, wholly numb and almost useless. Empty bottles chinked as the milkman put them into his crate. The sun shone brightly. To my mind nothing beats a bowl of natural yoghurt.

I'm ashamed to say I have been sitting at home doing absolutely nothing all weekend. We often fail to apprehend the real nature of change. Everybody has come across the sort of problem which seems impossible to solve. I hope to come up with some of the answers. It's difficult to apply much creative thought to this question. I have a nervous habit of biting my nails. Ink spluttered out of my pen and made a terrible blot on the page.

I felt awful last night; I dreamt I was falling off a cliff in slow-motion. I was woken by the loud chatter of birds. When I woke my left arm was asleep. The sunlight streamed temptingly through the windows and made me restless.

I entered one or two competitions and won prizes. Among entries that arrested my attention was one from a blind girl. The poem is really a burlesque: two small spacecraft find a bizarre world. She acquired a reputation as a very good writer.

At last I had a lucky break into the great citadel of publishing. ‘Ah, George. Come on in—I'm taking a break. My new book is coming on quite well now. This is the edited text.’

I showed George what I had written, a story rich in comic and dramatic detail. Paul in the novel is a man made up of many men, a composite lover. He has a prominent Adam’s apple. He is over 30, but he has a mental age of seven. You either love him or you hate him. He is like a child lusting for toys: lovely, capricious, and merciless women. At the beginning of their journey they encounter an English couple. She is the wife of an army colonel. The girl's seduction is an important part of the story. The book culminates in a terrible scene when this woman is killed. It seems rather sad that something like this should happen to such a nice person.

The scheme

Castle was decisively vindicated at the polls, receiving 23,275 votes to 10,231. But he had suffered a lot of nervous strain and shock and general worry. He retired to his sickbed in a state of nervous exhaustion. His wife had to visit some of her relatives for a few days.

Assassination was not far behind. There had also been those at the periphery of the movement who had advocated violence; their schemes began to sound wilder and wilder. There is no one as dangerous as an idealist with a machine gun.

Howard went back into the sitting-room. His eyes fell on Lithgow, hunched in a corner.

‘Let me ask you something, Howard. Just out of curiosity. Would you feel comfortable criticizing the state?’

Lithgow paused and looked at Howard, who returned his gaze silently.

‘Let us look at the other side of the coin. We have power if we only cared to exercise it.’

He was going to blow the place up. I chickened out at the last moment. The scheme had one big attraction: it was cheap. Everything went like clockwork. We all held our breaths till the bomb burst somewhere on the other side of London.

The whole thing went like a dream. They had planted the bomb beneath the house. At quarter to four someone knocked on the window. He was forced to rise from his sickbed; he thought they might be criminals come to burgle the house. The bomb exploded, sending lethal fragments flying in all directions. I could hear the bomb going off at the other side of the city. Roofs were blown off and higher buildings suffered extensive damage. Castle felt himself thrown into the air. Everything around him was blown to pieces. The blast brought a large part of the wall crashing to the ground. Dust, dirt and concrete splinters showered about him. A vendetta that has all the appearances of a personal spite. People who had been indoors were now buried beneath mountains of rubble. This isn't fair to anyone, but it does happen.

It is difficult to discern the motive in this seemingly arbitrary attack. The bombing climaxed an increasingly deadly series of attacks. Even the most ardent revolutionaries never went that far.

The editor called me to his office to tell me the news. His voice was charged with suppressed merriment. We could see a few curls of smoke in the distance. The rush of rapturous delight the news brought to me...I could have burst with pride. ‘We ought to celebrate; let's have a bottle of champagne...’

Excited shouts and laughter could be heard from the garden, a frenzy of kissing and champagne cork popping. We couldn't help but admire it. The bankers heard the news, and rejoiced. It was rumoured that the Palace was enchanted by what it had heard. There was no response from Number Ten.

When the news was broadcast, shock waves spread through voters from Land's End to John o' Groats. The country was stunned. The Dispatch splashed the story all over the front page. The headline ran across all six columns. Nobody knew the cause of the explosion.

Strong feelings had been unleashed in me by the news of the bomb. I wandered amongst the ruins. No one seems to pay any attention to the caravanserai of detectives and journalists. The press was champing under the restraint of not being able to tell the full story. The house was badly damaged; there was an ugly smell of burning—the smell of burnt wool. Everything combustible was destroyed. Some pieces of gold coin that had fused together in the blaze... The car was buried beneath tons of rubble. There were still people trapped inside fallen buildings. The term ‘cold-blooded’, so often applied to reptiles, is a very misleading one. Injured people still lay amongst the rubble. Besides them there curls up a twist of blue smoke. The smoke dispersed into threads and clouds and whorls.

All fires had now burned themselves out; the last plume of blue smoke curled away. The ledgers and account books had all been destroyed. The undertakers came to collect the body.

Howard knew about the killing. He was not available for comment yesterday. ‘I shall give the details to no one, not even to you.’

He's been a bit off-colour for the past few days. But then, who hasn't? He went back down again to see who was around. ‘The murder of Richard will not help matters. That's what it is. Just cold-blooded malicious cruelty.’ He destroyed the evidence as he went along: he burnt all papers connected with the incident.

In a capitalist world, the forces of the market-place prevail; it is something that has to be faced. In June the market collapsed to a five-and-a-half-year low. The party had been destroyed and would need rebuilding.

Why did you do it?

It was a nerve-racking and soul-searching period for us all. I read Castle's obituary in the Daily News. A commission was appointed to investigate the assassination.

I retired to my study to await a call from George. He's never in when I phone. I was just leaving when my friend called me back. It was too late to go shopping, so he booked in at the Hotel 'd Angleterre. I brought him a copy of a book by John Fisher about Emily Hobhouse. ‘I'm looking for Mr Lithgow's room.’

‘Just a minute, please—er, Lithgow—ah, here it is. Number 357. He wants you to come and see him now, in his room.’

He was sitting there in striped pyjamas. ‘What brings you here? How did you know where to find me?’

‘Here's that book you wanted.’

He thanked me for it, but made no comment. ‘Oh, cheers. Sit down and make yourself comfortable.’

The two rooms were en suite, with a communicating door. The door was rather stiff. George mentioned having seen me on television the previous evening.

‘It's a first for me too. How did you know I was coming?’

He sat with his legs slung over the arm of an easy chair. ‘I must be psychic.’

I do not want to romanticize him. The curtains hung in bulging folds against his shoulder. His hair was a mess and his tie was askew. His feet were propped up on the coffee table.

‘I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I don't like that tie you're wearing.’

He took a package of cigarettes out of his pocket. It occurred to him that he hadn't eaten anything since the night before. George telephoned down to the reception desk. He ordered coffee and brandy. We had a late lunch at the hotel. The meal was as awful as the conversation. He talked non-stop about sex. ‘Don't you feel all itchy?’ He is visited by an apparition, a girl mysteriously resembling his dead daughter.

He was staying in the same hotel as I was. All sorts of possibilities began to open up. The attempt to bribe the clerk had failed. He made an irritated gesture.

‘Sorry to be a bother, but could you sign this for me?’

George didn't look up or react in any way. He handed back his room key to the receptionist.

‘I have taken the liberty of booking you into adjoining rooms. We want to make your stay as pleasant and enjoyable as possible.’

I don't think badly of him for what he did—I was broadly in favour of it. It was a case of not knowing what else to do; it was a brilliant idea, and it worked. He had succeeded, triumphantly; he had pulled it off.

‘Why did you do it, George? Why do you have to be such a martyr all the time?’

He had a mystified look on his face. ‘He was a sick man, mentally and physically... We have pursued everything to the bitter end. I am told you were at the meeting last week. For some reason or other your name was omitted. We must have no illusions as to the road to working class power. The best beer will be the stuff you brew from the malt you have made yourself.’

To him violence was a logical inevitability. He tapped out his initials in Morse. There were dark rings of fatigue or pain beneath the eyes. As he had been up since 4 a.m.; he was no doubt now very tired. The arm of his jacket was torn.

‘It was a highly competent piece of work. How did you manage to get into the house?’

‘It was a piece of cake; the bedroom window was open.’

We discussed the strange sequence of events that led up to the murder. It had taken George several hours to shake off the police. He made me look, in comparison, a good, calm, reasonable person. ‘He wanted to check on my bona fides. I depend upon authorship for my entire living. It was an awful job, but the money wasn't bad. I desperately need the bread. There was a great desire to have it over with.’

‘If you use cynicism as a defence you soon lose all sense of moral values.’

When the telephone rang he picked up the receiver. He nodded his head. ‘Somebody wants you on the telephone.’

All I could hear was heavy breathing down the telephone. ‘But no one knows I am here.’

‘I'm sorry, but she's not in at the moment. That's all for tonight, folks. Good night.’ He hung up the phone.

I looked into his eyes. They didn't waver. ‘Could you massage the back of my neck?’

George lit a cigarette with quick jerky movements. ‘I've just brought out a little book on Dostoevski.’ He started to knead my aching shoulders.

Success breeds success, failure breeds failure. Could it be true that money did not bring happiness? I felt unequal to any cosy chit-chat about the new publication. George felt a worm of unease. ‘I let myself be dazzled by the gilt chimeras of the career of writing.’ He became aware that he had lost his audience. His gaiety had revealed itself as a manic fear of solitude.

All his novels are autobiographical in some way. He wanted to avenge himself for his sufferings. His future was unclear and uncertain; you wonder what the next two years are going to bring for him. They are bound to catch the poor devil before long. For some reason we talked about death, the grubbier aspects of political life.

‘I fell madly in love with Charlotte the first time I ever saw her.’

‘You betrayed a position of trust.’

The freckles on George's face disappeared under a blush of embarrassment. His eyes were bright with ardour and indignation. ‘Cocktails? Romance? I have no time for such bourgeois concerns. We all have our own idiosyncratic ways of coping with grief. She'll have to make preparations for the funeral.’

‘It all sounds rather fishy to me.’

He went very pink, and looked away.

George sat down uninvited on the side of the bed. There was a rather sepulchral atmosphere in the room. I was conscious that he had changed his tactics. ‘I'm fine,’ he said. ‘Don't worry about me.’

‘Of course I'm worried. You're turning into a junkie!’

He always borrows money from his friends and never pays it back. I told him to get a good lawyer. He nibbled my ear lobe playfully.

George undressed in the dark, throwing his clothes carelessly over a chair. There wasn't a blemish on his body. Health is a blessing that money cannot buy. His body was golden brown.

‘You've really caught the sun.’

‘This zip won't stay up.’

Inexplicably, I was shaking all over; I felt a cold coming on. We lay down side by side. George was good with his hands. He was looking for some form of release from an unbearable situation. He brings out the animal in me. We are governed by the hormones that circulate around our bodies. I never thought I would ever have anything in common with George. He was sweating like a bullock. A look of bliss came over his face; he rolled back to his side of the bed. He dozed off into a fitful sleep.

I had wound myself in a cocoon of bedclothes, his pyjama trousers: I was curled up in a foetal position. The faint chiming of the town hall clock... I am tired of one-night stands. Inequality is the worm in the bud of love. He awoke trembling and in a cold sweat.

‘Is something bothering you?’

‘Today is Richard's funeral.’ He found himself giggling quite uncontrollably. Deep in his mind he knew he was at fault.

George is energetic, rising at 6 am. He was having a wash, bending over the basin and splashing his face. It was five o'clock in the morning. A feeling of panic was rising in him. He took a last look back into the desolated room. He wandered across Hyde Park and ended up, heaven knows why, in the Geological Museum. His last port of call was the chemist's.

The Funeral

We bade him farewell. The church organ belched and roared. I'm a bundle of nerves today; I knelt down and worshipped the Lord. A security man wandered over with a gun at his belt. All the pomp and ceremony was quite magnificent. The vicar read the lesson from the first epistle of the Corinthians. The coins rattled musically in the collecting box. Even George, that most ebullient of men, looked downcast.

Charlotte had been officially received into the church a month previously. She held herself erect, trembling slightly. He gave her a look of commiseration. The organ breathed a last note and fell silent. The four bearers lifted the coffin slowly.

Howard bore himself well at the funeral. He did not allow himself to be too upset by the news.

I thanked him for risking his neck for me. ‘That passed off rather well, don't you think? It was a risk and it paid off. It saved us so much time and effort.’

Howard wondered if he had heard aright. He laughed hollowly. ‘What an awful thing to say. What is morally wrong can never be politically right. This assassination business has gone far enough.’

George stared at Howard with a slightly shamefaced look. ‘So you'd condemn me to be shot at dawn? Pardon me if I sound cynical, but what did you expect? It's too late to change that now; it's too late to make a hullabaloo, now the poor man's dead. I don't mean to sound flip, but it could be worse, you know..’

‘It won't do, George,’ said Howard, intervening. ‘I know he's dead but I just can't accept it. They ought to desist from such foolish activities, actions whose consequences can in no way be calculated. It's wrong whichever way you care to look at it. It's strange now, after everything that's happened, to recall how the project started. And what a mess we made of that!’

‘I suppose it was rather tactless of me to ask. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that this was a mistake. It's a pity, but there's nothing we can do...’

They exchanged apprehensive glances.

‘It was the result of all that had happened previously. Are you going to the party?’

‘Candidly, George, I hoped I might manage to avoid going to her party this time. I'm a bit iffy about it at the moment. Apropos some doings in Cardiff, a man from the organisation got in touch with me.’

‘Why are you so worked up about it?’

‘I'm not. I'm just excited, that's all.’

Under the circumstances Jackie had better stay away. She did her bob to the altar; her cream-coloured cashmere shawl...the bell tolled for him.

I had not attended a funeral for many years. The cemetery was surrounded by a chain fence. A procession of maidens bore the weight of the broken body. Two clergymen were standing above a hole in the ground. It was just another grave like all the rest. First of all dig a deep hole in the ground. You can see that this skull belonged to a child. A florist's van came with flowers—a profusion of flowers of all types; clematis, roses, snapdragons and tobacco plants to name only a few. The flowers may be anything from light carmine to crimson in colour. In the distance a church bell was ringing. A bell can be in the key of D but it will still contain many other tones. The body was lowered into the freshly dug hole. ‘We will miss his buoyancy and charm..’

Jackie began to cry. Her hands were folded modestly before her and her head was bent. Howard was most amiable. He was holding a big black umbrella. He hugged her and handed her a bouquet of winter roses, making the flowers bend and nod like people agreeing. This variety of rose blooms late into the autumn. Roses which are now infested with greenfly; they collapse at the touch of a finger.

She stood for a moment with her head buried against his neck.

‘She's upset. It's natural, isn't it? Today's the funeral..’ She consoled herself with the thought that he was near. ‘My eyes are always swollen after I've been crying.’

We stood about exchanging a few pleasantries. His wife watched approvingly. I had found a little photograph of Charlotte among his effects. ‘Actually, Howard, before I forget, she asked me to give you this. A little bit has broken off the left hand corner. I think that's perhaps her finest picture...’ This was angrily denied by the dead man's family. Their behaviour in this respect was a reflection of their very different personalities.

‘We all need a bit of something nice in our insides and then we'll feel much better.’

She and Jackie both agreed to come. I'm not going to take sides. They're both my friends. The sobbing began again. Jackie's behaviour was attracting disapproving frowns. ‘Jackie, try not to make such a noise.’ She began to weep in gasping, choking sobs. Charlotte looked offended. She held the flowers and looked at their white unblemished petals. ‘Did George have dinner with you on the night in question? I still find this incident inexplicable.’

‘Please, Mrs Castle,’ said Howard. ‘Calm down, let me explain...’

She left amid a swarm of photographers.

Howard looked nonplussed. ‘May I confide in you? I have it on good authority that Charlotte Castle will be prosecuted. It really makes a big difference, you know.’ It took a moment or two for his words to sink in. Later police arrested her on a charge of conspiracy to murder. She was released on $2,500 bail. I saw her going about with a long face. She will give evidence to a committee of enquiry.

We kept the talk on a safely anodyne level. It was rumoured that the body had been removed from the coffin. They were both alert to the dangers in the grim business.

He read swiftly though the burial service. ‘Anyway, I've got to go. I'll see you tonight, then.’

‘Yes,’ said George, smiling dourly. Howard hurried off eagerly to get a cab.

‘You are welcome, Mr. Howard,’ he called after him.

Jackie was holding an armful of red roses. George had the tact to leave a moment's respectful silence. She walked across the street and climbed into her car.

I try to forget the dead. Mourners often find it difficult to tear themselves away from a newly filled grave. We lifted our heads to breathe in the fresh, clear air. The old man was singing of a green hill far away; I really don't go a bundle on this kind of music. I read stories etched on the gravestones. The music brightened things up a little. The children applauded at the end of the song. Little boys were throwing home-made squibs.

George was burned by the sun to a deep tan. We drank a carafe of house-wine. He suddenly smiled, feeling buoyant and at ease. ‘Can I come too?’

‘I don't see why not. I can give you a lift if you wait.’

‘It's very kind of you. Are you sure?’

‘Oh, it's no bother.’

He nodded appreciatively. ‘Thanks. I am banned from driving.’

Once again, I got that nasty feeling that I was being followed.

Charlotte's new sobriety surprised her friends. On his death certificate she was again named as his wife. The solicitor took a sealed envelope from the folder on his desk. They denied her rightful claim to the property. The big house was sold by auction. The council has the right to sell this house, being the owners.

The Party

I ought at least to put in an appearance at the party. The house was an imposing, mock Georgian affair. My hostess greeted me with unexpected warmth and cordiality. ‘My friends call me Bing. Did you manage to get anything to eat before you came?’

‘The gin's killed my appetite.’

She had a naturally cheerful and serene expression. ‘Do come over to the table and say hello to the group. Do you fancy a quick one?’

There was plenty of food and drink at the party; she gave us the full VIP treatment. I was given a heady mixture of champagne and brandy. The dealers with velvet voices breathing cigar smoke... I was amazed at the beauty of the people. There were some smashing birds there. They were deeply under the influence of alcohol. They talked endlessly of beet and cattle feet. One speaker was high on acid. Bing went to him with open arms. He turned his head and looked across at me. ‘Do you want some beetroot?’

‘No, I hate the stuff.’

The surplus food was consumed with joyous abandon. They circled attentively with drinks and olives. ‘May I have some more?’

‘Be my guest!’

Champagne bubbled up over the edge of the glass.

There was a commotion at the other end of the bar. A woman burst her way through the guests at the buffet, the cigarette hanging carelessly from her lower lip. She raised her hand and waved, tentatively. ‘Cut the cackle, please, and get us another drink.’

I was Nora's friend and adviser. She behaved like this even in the presence of comparative strangers. I think she's had one too many. We must make allowances for her. Nora is an unhappy woman. She is furiously busy one moment, burnt-out and inert the next. She made a bit of an ass of herself at the party. She walked like a model, with an exaggerated swing of the hips—a curious, most affected swagger. She had drunk a few pints of beer. Why does the way she walks excite me so much? She wanted to be an actress.

‘What a hostess,’ said Nora with a big wink at George. Through signs she communicated that she wanted a drink. The champagne bubbled in her glass. ‘She's such a difficult girl to please as far as men are concerned. They are inclined to bow to all her wishes regardless of their own.’

The voice was low but beguiling. She finished her cigarette, then lit up another one immediately. ‘Where is Peter Hochstadt?’

‘I haven't a clue. George drove me up.’

Bing commanded another drink and leaned back. ‘Who's George? How many people, may I ask, have you invited to my party?’

Why was George at the party? It was not as if he were a relative. I was embarrassed beyond belief. ‘It's really brought him out, and it's done him the world of good.’

Bing appeared to be floored by this casual remark. She sat there staring at him, her brow wrinkled, her mouth slightly open.

George gave Bing a belated welcome. ‘I haven't gatecrashed a party since I was eighteen...’ He mopped his sweating brow. He ought to know better. I intended to make up for this lapse in manners at the next party.

Nora felt frustrated, frightened, adrift. ‘I'm dying for a smoke.’ She put the cigarette between her lips and lit it. She was beginning to drink more under the delusion that she had somehow become immune to it; she drank at least half a bottle of whisky a day. She had been drinking herself into a stupor for at least six hours. She claims she's not an alcoholic because she doesn't drink alone. No one had the heart to tell her what they really thought.

‘Never in my life have I seen anyone drink as much as you. Heavy drinking can cause lethal damage to the liver, heart and kidneys.’

Nora took it as a personal affront. She spoke with agonized emphasis. ‘You are really asking for trouble speaking to me like that.’ Her eyes brimmed with tears. She was weeping in my arms.

I knew she could be very nasty, so I braced myself. She didn't spare my blushes. ‘Behave yourself! You're showing me up!’

‘Oh Jane, come on, for goodness sake...’ A brazen whore, she whispered in my ear that she wanted to go to the toilet.

I turned and shook off the hand she had placed on my sleeve. ‘Now don't take this amiss. Relax, and above all don't panic.’ She may find herself out in the cold.

We entertained the guests with a detailed description of the party. There was a confused sound of music and cheering. The band blasts out its unique version of ‘Amazing Grace’. The music played incessantly; now soft and slow, now brassy and loud. The music carried through the open window and blended into the roar of passing traffic. We all boogied, either as couples or singly. The various instruments were stopping and starting but keeping to the beat. Ralph blew a series of short blasts. He bobbed his head at the audience. I heard a great cheer go up. They clapped their hands in time to the music. Nora applauded with the rest and shouted out ‘Bravo!’ She filled her glass to the brim.

The musicians began packing their instruments as the last dancers drifted off the floor. The equipment was so bulky that it had to be wheeled around on a large trolley.

I had seen Ralph quite often on the stage before I got to know him. By day he was a bricklayer, but his reputation as a singer was growing fast. His assistant was busy putting the instruments away. They call themselves The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They entertained in a very big way, with concerts and enormous parties. They've got a hit single in the charts; their new single has just been released.

‘The tour is going okay. My last tour was better though. Colin Bradbury has now brought out a second album.’

Their lives belie the popular image of the swashbuckling rock musician. He was tall and spare, with a cadaverous face. We just stood and bantered for half an hour.

‘I may be old-fashioned, but why don't they write nice songs anymore?’

‘We don't play that kind of music anymore.’

‘That's too bad. David said you were terrific.’

Ralph's lips parted in a delighted smile. He had become a big name, a real pop hero. He was getting a fair amount of publicity build-up. The album had a bland, uneventful sort of sound. He thinks their new album is the best thing since sliced bread. ‘Jazz is always improvisation: the audience does not know what is going to happen next. The first edit took over a month. I went up to the big recording studio in Maida Vale. We could probably clip a few seconds off the current record.’

I was in need of something stronger than ginger ale. Few, if any drugs, act sufficiently swiftly. George was absurdly clumsy in his attempt to deflect attention. He cannot dance. His conversation was a trifle mannered, his eyes were half-closed. He took me aside and began to talk about his boyhood. His tone was affectionate. He had spent all the time alone in the flat, cleaning and tidying it to excess. He gave me a pill of his own concoction: pituri, a tobacco-like plant that Aborigines chew. The whole plant is highly aromatic.

We stood there pretending to be hot stuff. He danced a step or two, then remembered his dignity and stood still. It was a monotone, steady beat which went on for ten minutes. Some women wore jade studs in their ears. The men wore bead necklaces and amulets to protect them. They were bored, and looking for adventure. A funky dance beat; now the place really began to hot up, shouts and bellows of laughter... Their bodily gyrations and contortions fascinated him. He disappeared into a mass of bobbing heads. The floor shook to the beat of the dancer's feet. We danced in completely unstructured groupings, women with small breasts, brightly coloured silk blouses... Boy oh boy, was that some party! The girls were doped to the eyeballs. I caught myself gazing with idle lust at one of the young, long-legged girls who served behind the bar. She enjoyed a good deal of adulation. She looked round from under half-closed lids to see if there was anyone interesting.

George plugged his ears with cotton wool. He snapped his fingers in time to the music. ‘She's quite sweet, Piggy.’

‘If you like the type. Those go-go girls have gotten you all excited.’

‘Piggy's a bundle of fun.’

‘She's not worth bothering about, honestly. She takes good care to get in with the people who matter. Certain girls are catty and difficult to live with.’

One of the women, another of those sirens, haughtily regarded us as we talked. He looked at her with raised eyebrows, and the girl stared back.

‘I didn't much care for the way she looked at me either. I don't think she takes drugs. Maybe she doesn't like me.’

‘No, I think she's just playing hard to get. I'll bet anything she fancied you. If you want my advice, I think you ought to forget her.’

George was puzzled and searched Ralf's face for a clue. Slowly, with an air of amusement, he nodded.

George was adroit at flattering others. After a little while she joined the dancing. He tried to appear casual as he asked her to dance. They began to dance, slowly at first, then more and more quickly. There we were bopping away till the small hours. I was showing off madly, doing bad impersonations and cracking jokes. I seem to collapse around 6:30.

Being bitchy was one of Nora's failings. Nora stuffed a cigarette into her mouth. She affected a lisp. ‘Hallo there, Peggy, how are you today?’

‘Her name is Piggy.’

‘Oh, then I heard it wrong. Hi there!’ She put the glasses into Piggy's groping hands. ‘I like your outfit—very snazzy! The latest rave in party gear.’

She offered her a cigarette.

‘No, thank you. I'm not smoking.’

This form of teasing is nasty enough to be taken as an affront. Playfulness and rowdiness suddenly cease to amuse, and become instead the cause of annoyance. When Nora collapsed, I called the doctor, who arrived almost immediately.

There was smugness in Piggy's eyes. She was the centre of attention. Crystals glittered in her ears. Because of her bearing I realized that she was someone important. This nickname was for several years enough to identify her in a headline. Newsmen accorded her the kind of coverage normally reserved for film stars. She leaned forward, hands resting wide apart on the bar—behaviour that people lower down the social ladder would ape. Her clothes moulded perfectly to the lithe body. She knew just how far to go in dressing a la mode.

George watched her with mingled dismay and pleasure. ‘They are just silly.’

‘Absolutely, I couldn't agree more.’

‘She is excellent, though.’


‘I'm bored.’

‘How can you be bored?’

He sneaked a look at her as she was passing by. I was not above enjoying myself. The extraordinary lustre and beauty of her eyes; shoulder-length, brilliant bronze hair... The blouse was revealingly tight. Her waist was slender, her hips curved. I put up with her phoney air and graces—I have never met anyone so attractive.

‘Would you like to have a drink with me?’

‘Why not?’ she said, wanting to be as bright and brittle as all the other people. She rolled her amber brown eyes at me. Her voice had a faint American accent. ‘If I may be allowed to venture an opinion, I think we should leave right away.’ She was looking at me with coolly appraising eyes.

Her superb self-confidence made me feel timid and anaemic by contrast. ‘I wish to correct a false impression which may have been created.’

With quick feminine craft she concealed her surprise.


All too soon, the party was over. I could see the beam of her flashlight waving around in the dark. She was all but stark naked.

‘What are you doing out here all alone? Go to the Youth Hostel and book yourself a place for the night.’

She caught my arm with both hands. ‘I'm sick of being piggy in the middle all the time! I want to be an actress.’ Her voice quavered grotesquely, her film star affectations had fallen away. I could see the line of white foam where the waves broke on the beach. She lit a cigarette with quick, jerky movements. She was unsteady on her feet, her eyes were full of accusation.

I grabbed her by the shoulders. ‘Don't give me such severe looks. What have I done? It isn't quite that bad. Women are brought up to be suspicious of each other. Stick with me and you'll be okay, don't you worry.’

She listened attentively, interrupting now and then with a comment, an amplification. She showed none of the belligerence and arrogance I had learned to expect. My loins still tingle when I think of her: the smooth arch of her hips, the whiteness of her flesh, her burnished skin... It was a privilege to observe her at such close quarters. She had everything: looks and youth and sophistication. Water was running in slow heavy drops off her fingertips. I shed all my restraint. Piggy let out her breath with a gasp. She didn't wear a girdle anymore. Hundreds of little warm waves came washing under me. I noticed her filthy and torn sweater—a wickedly exciting, musky smell. I like dirt. I couldn't bear a job where I was clean all day. It is so cheering to find that other people are just as untidy as you are.

Piggy paused for breath. The weather hadn't changed for the better. The cold rain slanting in from the sea seems to beggar description. I was covered with freezing mud and shaking with fatigue. She was turning blue with cold. There was a caravan glistening in the wet. She had the key out and was fumbling at the door. My fingers are so stiff from the cold... We were too tired to wipe off the mud that splattered onto us. The rain beat against the window. The rainstorms lasted all night long, the sound of the water pouring down on the metal roof. I let myself go with her more completely than I've ever done before. Piggy broke into a noisy laughter. A mosquito had bitten her on the wrist. I stayed with her until dusk.

I slept deeply and dreamlessly. I woke up to discover that she had gone. My hair was in hopeless disarray. The sun comes up in the East; the room was bathed in sunlight. I groped my way out of the bed and did my morning exercises.

My face and hands are covered with mosquito bites. Insects are greatly affected by body temperature. George was still comatose on the sofa at lunch time. I must phone her up tonight.

The insects colonized the land before the vertebrates. There are thought to be three times as many species of insect as of all other kinds of animal put together; estimating the number of individual insects in the world seems beyond any computation. Insects such as ants have a highly effective system of communication; no such communicative ability exists between other animals. The perfection of their design is attested by the fact that they survived for thousands of years, something to be treated with awe and wonder.


I managed to alienate George, too. ‘Been sick?’ I asked. As a conversational gambit it lacked something.

‘I feel terrible.’

‘It serves you right for drinking so much last night.’

He looked careworn and refused to talk. He took to his bed for two days and brooded on his failure. He's on barbiturates; he could no longer fulfil his function as breadwinner for the family. It's a psychological thing, maybe too far gone for any of us to help. George's shop was now the off-licence. He was categorized as schizophrenic. ‘Things are getting desperate,’ he said in a doleful monotone.

The most effective way of stopping this is to hospitalize him for a brief period. It was clouding over and we thought it was going to rain. He gazed at the street with dull, glassy eyes. His eyes were gummy with some yellowish matter.

We thought that if we went out the rain would probably let up after a while. A walk in the fresh air might help to blow some of the cobwebs away. The air outside was almost as dank and malodorous as inside. The park was full of lovers billing and cooing under the trees. The air is so humid that your breath turns to mist in front of you. The gardens were a bit boring, rather municipal. He walked drearily between the trunks, his face empty of expression.

‘Did those photos come out that you took at Bing's party?’

‘Nora did not come out well.’

I saw street lamps mistily reflected in black water. The shadows and the spaces between the trees were turning from grey to black. We were walking through deserted streets in the blackness. A burglar alarm was ringing somewhere. An old warehouse between the railway arches... We walked across the railway bridge. He is dawdling behind, not wanting to catch up. Wet clouds, heavy with rain, moved majestically overhead. George kept glancing back. He stumbled and fell, exhausted. Not ten seconds later he was violently sick.

Towards midnight the rain ceased and the clouds drifted away. We found a hotel where we could spend the night. He went upstairs and pulled down the blind. He sat down on the bed; he was too tired even to eat.

My feet were blistered and aching. ‘Don't try to con the doctor into prescribing a tranquilliser.’

He stared at himself in the mirror. Something was horribly amiss. He buried his wife last week. The girl had dropped in his path like manna. George knew in his bones that she was the right girl for him. She had been put on probation after six months in prison. They were an enigmatic pair, communicating telepathically with each other. Never before had he known such an intimacy with another person. I was personally involved in the brief chain of events that led up to her death: I had come between him and his girlfriend. I have always disbelieved in telepathy. She had only just moved in.

He sat very still, trying to accustom himself to the darkness. His face burrowed closer to my damp shoulder. He wore a medallion of some sort round his neck.

‘What's wrong?’

He spoke as if asleep or drugged. ‘You've got no sense of human dignity, that's wrong with you. I hold you morally responsible for her death.’

It is easy to understand how a person's psyche can be damaged by such experiences. To be ill is the honourable way out, the escape from intolerable emotional stress. We've got only a very minor understanding of how the brain works. It was quite impossible to know where the truth ended and falsehood began. He moved his hand bit by bit over the mirror. ‘It's dead easy.’

On the wall was a board covered with the letters of the alphabet, a code in which we substituted z for a, y for b, and so on, throughout the alphabet—letters that shine with a fearful phosphorescence. One could just pick out the letters AGR. ‘Ms’ sounds like the buzz of an insect.

He felt himself sliding into obsession—he is unable to discern what is actually happening. ‘Can you explain to me the purpose of being?’

‘Don't bother yourself about it all. Think of all the names beginning with D. Twelve divided by three is four. Multiply it by three. Arrange the four digits in ascending order...If you begin to feel dizzy again, put your head into your hands, all right? Look on the bright side, because there always is a bright side.’

He took an aspirin to relieve his headache.

Well, after that things just went from bad to worse. We lay around smoking. Things were quiet for a while and I became pleasantly drowsy. The night had been warm and thundery. The brief rainstorm about midnight had done little to freshen the air. The atmosphere became close, oppressive; an ash-like substance fell from the sky. By the time the dawn came, the weather had calmed. People either smoked or mainlined the stuff. I waited so long that by the time my turn came I was a nervous wreck. These drugs can cause permanent brain damage. Its a hard habit to brake. What beats me is where they get the money from. Lithgow denied doing anything illegal. He took a deep breath and blew into the bag. He barked at me and I knew he must be hallucinating. ‘You're talking a load of utter bilge. I'll give you a biff on the nose if you don't shut up!’ These were manifestations of the darker side of his character.

A sallow, bespectacled young man, Paul was waiting his turn with patience. ‘I thought -’ he broke off, then smiled. ‘Sorry not my business. I'll tell you why I'm smiling, but it will make you crazy.’ He had nothing he could call his own—the swift descent from gentility to near-poverty. The Apostle Paul.. He is unemployed and receiving benefit.

He looked up blearily at Paul: ‘I want him out.’ He pointed a shaking finger at my friend and hissed through clenched teeth: ‘You, you get out! You'd be out cold if I promise you that.’ He blurted it out before I had time to stop him.

They looked at each other without blinking.

‘Go ahead and hit me, you big brute.’

I'm frightened. I want to go home. O God I want to go home. He knocked Paul unconscious with one blow of his fist; a bruising experience, behaviour belonging to an earlier phase of human evolution. He was so furious I thought he would have apoplexy.

They live their everyday lives within these bounds. George began to choke and cough. My first movement was one of repulsion; I thought I was going to pass out. My overtaxed brain rebelled and everything went blank. I must have had a blackout: I can't remember a thing. It took me something like an hour and a quarter to make a phone call. He was sitting dead drunk in a corner. Nobody was making any attempt to bring him round.

The long drunken party had just broken up. Miss Watkins was a nobody. She was a drifter. No family, no close friends. She was a plump blonde of about thirty, combing her hair with scarred hands. She came in looking grubby and bedraggled. She carries the virus with her; both she and George must have been carriers. Unacknowledged, Ginny sat down on the sofa in silence. She seemed quite unaware of the other people sitting around her. I adopted a cool dignified attitude that was calculated to discourage familiarity. This behaviour should not be confused with what psychologists call ‘role-playing’.

She spoke as if half asleep or drugged; somehow not quite there. She could not carry on a sensible conversation. She inhaled deeply, and held the smoke inside her lungs for three or four seconds. ‘Be careful with that,’ Paul warned her. He sat cross-legged on the floor laying out tarot cards. There were purple blotches around her eyes. She had a round face from which all the bloom of youth had long departed. There was eastern blood on her mother's side.

Apart from a few tasteless remarks, she was reasonably well behaved. ‘I've got no more money—they cleaned me out.’ She finished by tartly pointing out that he owed her some money.

‘You read my inmost thoughts. We'll call it £10, shall we?’

‘That sounds about right.’ She has to pay protection money to thugs to stop them beating her up. He turned back to her and hauled her none too gently to her feet. She gathered up the bills and stuffed them carelessly into her pocket. She seemed to brighten up a bit at this; she bowed her head.

She had humiliated him in front of his friends. His behaviour had been perturbing me more than I had cared to admit.

The Investigation

Charlotte threw away the dead flowers. She found it inconceivable that Lithgow was insane. Something seemed to be churning her up inside; she abandoned herself to grief. She was no longer in a position to command obedience or admiration. She was now facing bankruptcy. She did not seem to be getting over her bereavement: she was definitely a mental case. Her friends tried to cheer her up, telling her she wasn't missing much. A few words of consolation might have helped.

Charlotte did not notice the falsity of all the everyday conventions and rules of etiquette. She was besieged with requests for her autograph. While tidying up his belongings, she came across an envelope, a letter marked ‘personal’. She took the letter and perused it. ‘I'd like to talk with you about your late husband...’ They threatened to publish his letters to her and make a fool of him before the world. This amounted to blackmail. She faced criminal charges for deceiving the State. The idea of being locked up in jail filled her with horror: she might be put into the embarrassing situation of wearing cast-off shoes or sports jackets.

Am I to pass all my life abroad? I was living on my nerves at the time, expecting any moment to be arrested. They probably wouldn't imprison me, but they would fine me. My bed called me seductively. I was determined not to relax my own vigilance; I slept with a gun under my pillow. We must try to keep a stiff upper lip.

He came in by the back door. I was woken by a bright light shining in my face. ‘Chief Superintendent Darroway of the CID.’

Inspector Darroway was the officer in charge of the investigation. He was a bit of a show-off, sporting an earring in his left ear and an enormous moustache. His expression was brutish and mocking. The original uproar about his assignment to the case had died down. He extended his meaty, jewelled hands. He asked me my name. ‘You sound as though you condone the terrorists, the deliberate, calculated use of violence to achieve their objectives, their caginess about the existence and nature of the alleged offences. They will surely take up arms against you in the not too distant future. You don't seem to realize what thin ice you are on.’

He stood there, chewing at his moustache. The general assumption was that I was one of them.

I was a convincing liar, I thought; I was allowed to remain at home. They had assigned someone to watch me twenty-four hours a day. I decided not to tax Mr Darroway with the information at this stage. Several arrests had already been made. If they are found guilty they will face a sentence of ten years in prison.

Charlotte swore blind that she had seen me the week before. She claims total innocence of any involvement in the tragic events. ‘They can't touch me—I'm clean. There must be a master mind behind it all.’ He widened his eyes in a comical look of surprised seriousness.

The police searched all the houses but found no clues. Mr Howard remains under house arrest. He has moved house and has certainly come down in the world. He had to sit there, burning with humiliation. He's been warned not to try and bolt. Despite interrogation at police headquarters, no evidence against him could be found. People won't come forward with evidence in court. The whole business affected him profoundly. He was warned that if he attempted to contact me he'd be jailed for contempt of court.

His London flat became a place of solitude, a citadel of loneliness. They had installed hidden microphones in the house. ‘We had better be careful what we're saying since it's being recorded.’ He held his tongue and committed his thoughts to paper only.

Charlotte and I struck up a friendship immediately. She had me sussed out in ten minutes. I hated this furtive, clandestine existence. ‘I'm going to post a letter.’

‘You can't!’ said Charlotte. ‘Suppose you are seen...’

‘Don't get so maudlin. The next collection is at 9:30 am.’

She justified it with cogency and conviction. She was forcing me to think with more clarity about what I had seen. ‘It will be a comfort to him to know that you are standing by.’ She was still getting over her bereavement.

The press still pursued their victim remorselessly. Howard decided to stay until we knew what Charlotte's fate would be. A crowd had gathered at the door. We rushed into the bedroom and barricaded ourselves in. I was sure the door was going to burst open any minute.

A police car came nosing silently along the street. He was interviewed by Detective Inspector Andrews.

‘I have a warrant for your arrest.’

‘I have nothing to say until I see my lawyer.’

Howard was bundled into a car. He was arrested and charged with a variety of offences.

We inquired about the precise circumstances surrounding the arrest. ‘We need clarification of the legal position. Do you intend to keep them in prison?’

‘No comment.’ They were not ready to reveal any details of the arrest.

He struggled to block out all thoughts of his coming trial. They tried to buy off the witnesses; his mind chewed on this new complication. He denied the crimes with which he was charged. There was an unsuccessful search for a witness of repute. Most of the charges were dropped. There is no evidence to connect Howard with the murder.

The court case was being heard in London; the cloak of secrecy had to be torn aside. The outcome of the case was uncertain. The court case attracted large crowds: millions of people watched the proceedings on television. Some advocates never got important briefs.

I am convinced the evidence was planted in Howard's flat. I can't prove it—yet. But the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.A federal judge upheld the undercover methods used in the case. Both he and his brother judges had been considerably amused.

They listened avidly as witnesses to the murder told what they had seen. Howard refuses to budge. He was determined to have lawyers of his own choice to defend him. I carefully refrained from looking at him. He said he'd been with her all evening, and she backed him up. This cannot be the whole story. It must be said in all fairness that Howard played an important role in all this.

Witnesses claim to have been seriously misrepresented. Taking a case to the High Court is a chancy matter. I gave a clear, frank account of the incident; better to tell the truth, rather than tell a fairy story and have to change it later. Then came help from another quarter: Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor for the government. He started asking Charlotte a lot of questions. She was obliged to avow openly that she had been there. ‘I stayed with him until dusk. If your Lordship will give me time I will produce the evidence.’

This piece of evidence would have refuted the charge of his main accuser. Having made such bold claims, she finds it hard to admit that she was wrong. They must satisfy the court that they have not contributed to the commission of the offence. She had been all churned up and not really responsible for what she did.

George looked a bit put out. He felt he must unravel the mystery—he seemed driven by some mad compulsion. ‘I killed him,’ said Lithgow, as casually as if they were merely discussing the weather. ‘There is nothing premeditated about it, you know—it just happened. What proof have you that this was ordered? I had felt such extraordinary passion for this girl...I can do nothing more, my Lord: I cannot defend myself any further.’

The judge exploded: ‘Who are you?’

George stoutly maintained that he was right. He continued in rambling, disconnected sentences. Lithgow's attempt to disclose the truth was systematically blocked; he heard himself declared ‘incurably insane’. The judge ruled that those statements could not be allowed as evidence. I'd rarely seen a man look so unhappy.

He was committed for trial at Knightsbridge Crown Court. ‘Mr Mervyn- Griffith-Jones will lead for the prosecution.’

He stood with his legs planted apart. ‘You are a good chap, Howard... what do you think of this chap Lithgow then?’

‘I tend to vacillate between admiration and pity for him.’

His lawyer challenged three of the jury. She was trying to inject some fun into the grim proceedings. ‘This case is too silly for words,’ exclaimed his solicitor. He admired her high spirits, her jollity, and her very unusual beauty. She was faced with the difficult task of pleading for a defendant who was obviously guilty; she made long involved remarks of obvious irrelevance. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is this notebook. The letter, dated 15 September, was on notepaper headed “Executive Committee”.’

A jury would never convict on that evidence. Many of them were as baffled by the proceedings as the watchers in the public gallery. She has not budged on any issue she considers important.

Judge Arnason set Miss Lenaut free on bail. Would he then forget the crime and let it go unpunished?

The court accepted the commission's conclusions: the jury delivered a verdict of ‘guilty’. They were holding George captive. He was photographed and had his fingerprints taken, the contents of his pocket were itemized and confiscated. He was shut in with an assortment of strangers. I went into the jail and visited him. The cell doors were unlocked. A man in his underclothes was reading his paper by the window: the obituary page of the Times. George lay on his back. He hadn't eaten anything since the night before his capture. Two days later he was released at the habeas corpus hearing.

The lack of evidence tells a tale. I had created my own prison by telling so many lies. The Supreme Court had just turned down our appeal. He was eventually sent to prison for a very long time.

I was not a stranger to visiting arrangements in jails. He glanced up at the wall calendar—Today was Thursday. ‘How long will it take me?’

I did a rapid calculation. ‘About ten years,’ I said. ‘I am not in a position to judge. There are rather detailed rules of when you can and can't appeal.’

‘What books can I read on the subject?’

I got tired of his perpetual questions. I was trying not to let the jailers see my agitation.

The prisons were without showers or recreational facilities. They have made the place as unappealing as possible. The day-to-day security is the responsibility of the warder. The doors were kept permanently locked. The most repellent feature of the process was the calm, clinical way in which the keepers administered the rules. There were four bunks in the cell, two on one side and two on the other. Both bunks had been completely denuded of sheets and blankets. He lay face down, his hands cuffed behind him. The concrete floor is freezing cold. He jumped up and down to get the circulation going. Thomas was lying in the lower bunk. He lay there groaning like some prisoner stretched out on the rack. You do not put two prisoners in a cell in the hope that they will grow to like each other.

‘Let's go outside.’ He directed me to sit on a bench outside a closed door. The slope drops off almost vertically. There are no trees or bushes to give shade. Their job was to hammer the rough blocks into smaller chips. ‘Bastards!’ He murmured the word quietly and with great venom.

‘These limestones have been quarried for centuries. The intention was to distract prisoners from any prolonged reflection upon their wretched condition.’

'I know, I know,' Lithgow said impatiently.

I asked how he was treated by the screws.

‘My lawyers pressured the jail bureaucracy to let me have regular visits.’ He entered a realm where nightmares racked him. The whole episode made me vengeful; inside me was growing a smouldering anger.

John’s letter

The postman calls about 7 o'clock every morning. I had a letter today from my solicitor. Swallow was offering to settle outside the courts for £10,000. At last he saw reason and agreed to give me my money back.

The postman at last delivered the letter we had been waiting for. I open the mail immediately after breakfast. The seals of the packet had been broken. I squinted at the message. He had clear, childish handwriting. Celia was spreading marmalade on a piece of toast.

‘Would you like to hear it?’

‘Go ahead.’ She was taking an unconscionable time over spreading her marmalade.

The letter is brimful of slangy, vivid expressions. ‘Please forgive this absurdly long letter. It's ages since we last wrote to each other. Here I am, buried away in the Orient. Believe it or not they censor your letters here. You wanted some assurance that I was alive and kicking and thinking of you. We didn't stay long in Romania, we only went to, oh, what was the place, Mamaia, on the Black Sea. I hope this letter finds you in good health. How is your mother keeping?’

He made senseless expeditions to India. ‘To many people, the name Kalahari conjures up images of a desert of unrelenting aridity. There were no freedoms here of the variety we cherished; Indians were compelled to work in the mines. I could see nothing but jackals and cacti. On my sheet was yet another snake, dozing. I chased it off. Rattlesnake is just like chicken, only tougher. The Indians tend to avoid contact and community with the Spaniards. What rather frustrated me was that you were kept idle all the time. I believe I still owe you seven hundred Pounds. If there is anything you want, write me.’

For the first time since he had left home he felt sad. He thought of home; of drowsy fields and villages baking in the sun. ‘We passed a herd of buffalos. We would gaze enraptured at the sunsets. Once the sun had set, the air turned cold.’

His best friend betrayed him. In Ashanti he had inadvertently eaten human flesh. ‘I won't bore you with the details. The facts, briefly, are these. These people kill and maim innocent civilians; I've never seen anything remotely like it. They get a considerable thrill out of it. Most of the casualties were lying unattended. It was a memorable experience but I shouldn't care to repeat it.’

Thrashing to break free, he was jabbed savagely with sharp sticks, his fists meeting and breaking the force of the descending club. The trial which the mythological hero must surmount before he reaches the goal... ‘They sprang high into the air brandishing their spears. Their only function is killing and I've had a bellyful of that.’

The drum brought the men rushing back to the village. In the monsoon the whole place is awash; torrential rains that beat down on him like hailstones. ‘I brought down two of their men. A smell of decaying meat.. the rain did things, to the corpses. The smell became stronger and stronger. We came across the carcass of a lion. I tied to wrench my gaze away from the apalling sight. The stench was beyond tolerance, and the men began to choke and vomit. They drew all the lion's teeth.

Their quarry were rhinoceros, elephant, and leopard. ‘You should remain somewhere safe. A wounded leopard, unable to catch its normal prey, may be driven to hunting people. We spent the morning tracking the beast to its lair.’

The quality of the photograph was poor. He was holding a branch, and impaled upon it was the bloody head of a leopard. The pointed end of the stick pierced through its throat into its mouth.

‘We cannot control the caprices of Mother Nature. For twenty minutes the earth shook. Black tides of lava flowed down the sides of the volcano, the pungent, choking smell of sulphur filled the air. We drove up a hillside and finally stopped on a high ridge. Hot mud burbled down from a side valley. Six other volcanoes were still erupting.’

He eventually came to the town of Peconic. But Asia was another matter altogether.

Indian troops bore the brunt of the Burma campaign. No one can afford to pay troops to sit about in idleness. Their boredom made them quarrelsome and cantankerous. They were too cold to sleep comfortably. John caught a cold which lasted for approximately a year. Following a bout of malaria, he was transferred to Java. ‘I cursed the orders that brought me here to the coast. I sent a cable to Cairo saying I was on my way. I spent 3 days without a bath or a shave or a change of clothes.’

Worse even than the lice and rats was the pain in his shoulder. ‘Barrack life is squalid, monotonous, and unpleasant. We had to be up at cockcrow. Disobedience is treated with special harshness. My face was coated with a fine layer of dust.’

His fellow soldiers resented his knack of ingratiating himself with officers. John's C.O. was a neurotic and unstable major, Major Burton-Cox. His command looked in reasonable shape; all his imperious orders were obeyed.

Swallow was being very waspish. The man he's going to have to work with is not of the same cast of mind as himself. Kunta came from a lower caste. His arrival threatens the coherence of the group. He looked an odd character with his bad teeth and the cast in his eye. He was viewed with suspicion by John's C.O. ‘They thought me mannered and rather effeminate—maybe I ought to grow a moustache. I had no choice but to look the young man over, and hope he was good news. He is very obedient, but so absent-minded and careless and untidy. The idea of kissing him is to me wholly repugnant. Most men can't stand it at any price.’ One suspects this was only part of the story.

‘Imrie offered to take a group of us to Mysore—a rich lush vale of meadows and blossoms. The Mysore Palace was impressively elegant and massive. I felt the cathartic power of his speech: “We are going—and no buts!” We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers. Who knew what sharp implement might be coming at my shoulder blades?’

His new outlook on life had come upon him gradually. Captain Imrie's words had penetrated his befuddled mind. He joined up at once, brimful of patriotism. ‘He's interesting, he's exciting, he's butch. I have never seen anyone so heavily built move quite so fast—a highly excitable man given to ungovernable bursts of rage.’

The crew, who disliked the new Captain, were restive and mutinous. ‘Day by day his men became bolder and more unruly. You've never seen such a rogues' gallery in your life. They carry on smiling in the face of adversity. Guns bulged on their hips. The whole gun was no longer than eighteen inches. We chose them for their compactness and ease of maintenance.’

‘The wind had changed, the dust was clearing. The walking was beginning to take its toll on all of us. Even in the dry season the streams have to be crossed by precarious rows of half bricks. Some factions have resorted to terrorism. They laid mines in the vicinity of the pipelines. Bending quickly without breaking pace, Kunta picked up a small stone. He travelled from village to village in the service of Allah. They made him the butt of endless practical jokes; it takes considerable character not to just give up and go home. I have come to like him quite a lot. In Kunta's seventeen years he had seen more brutality than most people can expect to see in a lifetime. His job is to establish a centre of civil defence in every village. He had one clear and strong wish in his confused brain: the massive fortress built into the rock, it must have some weak spot by which its defences can be breached. He doesn't know the meaning of the word “fear”; this provided some good comedy. He says he finds his life of little account and is proud to cast it away. Remarks like this are a tease, a come-on. Of course, human life out there is cheap.’

He felt a wild ecstatic happiness. ‘It's terrific when you're up there. You have no idea. The early morning skies were a clean, brilliant blue; the air here is invigorating. Gradually the sun warms us up. We're all raring to go. When you get up there in that cool crystal air, somehow you find that you can really breathe. The light here has a crystalline quality I have not seen in any other place.’

The C.O. sent out patrols three times. ‘One of the patrols had discovered an arms cache. It was pure chance that led to this discovery: Kunta's ears picked up a strange, muted sound. Some of the men had rigged up tents. They unload their trunks and cases: plywood containers which are sealed with metal clamps. There was a label on the crate saying “Glass. Handle with care.”’

He gave the whole story with all its sordid details. ‘We were told to shoot first and ask questions later. The party was challenged by the sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?” I heard the sentry cock his sub-machine gun, the others burst from their tents. I could have killed them. Imrie was not someone to be trifled with. He ordered the shooting of five unarmed, untried prisoners. He is pitiless and has never been heard to speak of pardon. He wouldn't even listen to me. They were punished immediately, without ever having their side of the story told. He chopped down with his free hand, just once. The heavy club met his head with a crack. Sunlight exploded, flooding everything. The blow caved in his skull; he fell on the floor with a thud. What a louse. I was mortified. He had his head cut off without much ceremony: the flash of a long knife lopped off his head cleanly at the shoulders. Numb with shock, Kunta stood watching blankly; he watched it all without moving a muscle. It was revolting; he gouged out his eyes! One wonders how they ever brought themselves to commit this grotesque act. If I watched that I'd had the most awful nightmares. You know, the works. Bad fights, guys dying, me dying...I can't run away from the horrors of the war.’

His trump card played, Captain Imrie rested his case. ‘When we got to camp, he put in his report, One killed in action. The writing of this diary was for him much more than an act of catharsis.’

But for the sense of someone watching them, John would have shouted at him. ‘He butchered tens of thousands of people. They were shooting unarmed peasants—and if I can't protect them from something, the least I can do is warn them that there is a danger. There is no need to go into details of the ghastly massacre. It contravened article 51 of the UN charter. How people kill for pleasure is totally outside my understanding. These summary executions earned him the title of Butcher. Monsters like him belong in jail.’

John was ready for a fight, but he backed off: ‘I lay doggo in my tent. I was basically a dreadful coward... ’ He explained that he was simply carrying out instructions. The troops mounted one charge after the other. His men were not a particularly brave lot, but they could be whipped into a frenzy. He could use his eloquent tongue to stir them to greater savagery. Wholesale slaughter was carried out in the name of progress. Some of the men had begun to act as if they were zombies. They were mere puppets manipulated by men in search of other ends. Their business was war, murder, pillage and rape. They competed with each other to find the most ingenious and original punishments. The taut blue horizon encircled them, broken only by the mountain-top. That infinite dome of cobalt blue... ‘There were heavy casualties on both sides; refugees crossed the border to escape the carnage in their homeland. The big concern has been with food, clothing, and shelter for everyone. Many had died from drinking contaminated water. Every line on their face tells a story. It's so inspiring for an artist.’

He asked me to send him any new stamps which might come out. ‘Hope you are all well at home. Love, John.’

He had taken five days to write. I thought I was entitled to take as many days thinking about my reply. It can't be too difficult to compose a nice little negative reply.

‘Thank you for your letter which arrived on Monday. I herewith return your cheque. Your letter is impudent and it has angered me. I don't know how I have stuck it. It's been hell. As to your suggestion to fly out to see you, I don't think this would be a good idea. Can you describe your son? If a father is away for long periods, this can harm a child's psychological development. You must say sorry and beg for forgiveness. I have a buyer for the house.’

I kept a carbon copy of my letter. For some unaccountable reason, I put the letter in the wrong envelope.

Go to Part 6 of Secret Ballet

Last update: 16 October 2008 | Impressum—Imprint