Chapter 5 - Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills by A.J. Hall
He hadn’t expected her to use a courier. To be conscientious in fulfilling her promises, that, yes. But he’d counted on at least another day, perhaps even two before the post arrived from Stuttgart and he had to know. She’d offered to tell him on the phone, but must have heard the hesitation in his voice.
“Better in a letter, perhaps. Things have changed so much, it’s hard to explain to young people how it was for us then. And this – I haven’t even told Karl and Erika, and you’re younger than my two. So, yes. Better in a letter.”
Now the letter had arrived, the familiar white, orange and mauve cardboard cover showing the trouble she’d taken to redeem her promise. And he would have to open it, and then there would be no room left for doubt. John was looking at him across the breakfast table, eyebrows raised. He was abruptly conscious of how much he’d counted on that extra day’s grace. Two, with any justice.
“I don’t know when I’ll be finished. Find yourself something to occupy yourself and I’ll text when I’m free. You’ll have to take your chances on getting a signal.”
“I can’t help?”
“Apart from by not falling off any steep slopes while I’m not around to catch you, no.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. John looked needled – no, be honest, hurt – at the reference to yesterday, but apologies had never been his style and he was terrible at them, anyway. And if the cardboard envelope contained what he suspected, better to have John off the premises when he discovered it. However often he might call John an idiot, there were things about which his perceptions were uncomfortably acute.
“Right then. I’ll take the car, OK? Well, see you later.”
His hands were very steady on the envelope, so there was no reason for John to focus on them – on it – the way he was doing. Silence hung between them for a moment. He turned without speaking, leaving John to the remains of breakfast, and made his way to his room.
A handful of photographs fell onto the bed when he shook the envelope. Then, a wisp of newspaper clipping – a bonus; he had expected to have to make the dreary trek to Colindale on their return to London. Finally, five densely written pages; black ink, a looped Continental hand, freer of affectation than he had expected.
He sifted quickly through the photographs. Kodak colour film, mass-market, not professional grade. The over-saturated yellow hues placed the snapshots in the 1960s even before one took in details of clothes and makeup.
The girl sprawling on her back on sun-dappled grass, long fair hair tumbled round her head, looked so like a crime scene he caught his breath. Reason reasserted itself a split-second later. Playing dead for the camera, a lover’s game on a summer afternoon. But the girl in the photo was lost and would never come again; that, at least, was true. Frau Heilbrunn, political hostess, mother of two, grandmother three times over (“And another one on the way”) and a force to be reckoned with in Weimaraner breeding circles stood in her place.
The man featured in only two out of half a dozen shots. Both were a little out of focus, as if he had spent so long shifting his pose to find some perfect look the girl had lost patience and pressed the button anyway.
He had expected the man to look more like him. But the resemblance was not especially marked, save for superficialities like colouring and height. Perhaps something about the cheekbones –
Something nagged at him; he turned the photograph upside down in an effort to free the image from irrelevances of context, to allow his mind to isolate the fugitive likeness he was trying to pin down.
Realisation came like a red-hot skewer in the flesh; he found he had jammed the knuckles of his right hand in his mouth and bitten down hard enough to break the skin. Ignoring the pain, he turned the snapshot right way up again. Idiotic of him not to have spotted it in the first place.
Not Mummy in the studio portrait which used to have pride of place on the family piano or sitting on some Tuscan villa terrace in family holiday snaps. Not even Mummy wearing her crusader expression as she waded into school battles or intrigued over the coffee-cups on one of her interminable committees.
Mummy during the last weeks at the hospice, weeks he’d locked behind a thick barrier of deliberate oblivion and never dared release since.
Shadows like two-day-old bruises beneath sunken, jaundiced eyes; flesh wasted away so that every bone stood out like an anatomy diagram; skin like moulded wax – even given the vagaries of late sixties colour processing the resemblance between Mummy and the man in the photograph was more than simple family likeness. It was the spectre of approaching death, trapped in a Box Brownie.
He glanced down at the newspaper cutting. North London local paper, nothing distinctive, could be any one of half a dozen possibles, most of them now defunct.
INQUEST ON BODY IN WOLF PEN
A headline written by a sub with either an unexpectedly pawky sense of humour or no sense of the absurd whatsoever.
On impulse, he rose from his seat on the bed and went into the en-suite bathroom, switching on the fluorescent light over the shaving mirror. The last few days he’d been shaving on auto-pilot, though John had had to do the honours that last day in Lyons and he’d given up on the whole business for the week or so previous to that. He couldn’t recall when he’d last looked properly at his own reflection.
A gaunt, hollow-eyed, sallow stranger stared back at him from the depths of the mirror. That did explain the reaction of the actor in the teashop.
Perhaps there were things he needed to clarify to John about their relationship.
If I happen to be looking like a three-day-old corpse at any point, my vanity will cope with your mentioning that fact. Ideally, before my appearance sends aging soap-opera stars into conniptions.
Displacement activity could only take him so far. He returned to the bedroom and picked up the letter. The translation formed itself in his head as he read, in a warm, confiding, colloquial voice.
My dear Sherlock. I find this an unexpectedly difficult letter to write. I made three previous attempts. All of them are in the waste paper basket. It is hard to strike a balance, to be fair as between the dead, who cannot argue their own cause. As for the living; we too are not the people whom we once were. Erika is a social historian – she tells me she will return to finish her doctorate once the new little one arrives and is settled at kindergarten. She won’t, of course, but given I ignored my own mother when she told me the same thing I can hardly complain too badly. But she insists oral testimony is “a vital resource” in social history – it would never do in physics – and I have read, in my time, a tremendous amount of nonsense about the 1960s. Please be kind enough to take this letter as “oral testimony”, and not just a mad yarn spun by an aging woman about days when she was a good deal younger and far thinner than she is now. By the same token, forgive me if I tell it as if it were a story. I find it easier to think of it so, as if I could open the covers of a book and bring everyone back.
I do not know whether you remember the Professor. Two is very young to lose a parent, but I hope you have some recollection of your father, however vague. He was a curiously kind man, though that could be hard to detect, given his reserve. A great scientist too – they will have told you that – at least, the part they’re allowed. The rest – well, as the archives gradually open we’ll know more about what his team were working on. I know they truly believed they were securing the safety of us all, and history will tell us if they were right. But his kindness ought not be locked away under “security concerns” even if his genius must.
Even your mother referred to him as the Professor, at least to me. “The Professor’s work mustn’t be disturbed,” was the first thing I recall her saying, while I stood in the hall of your parents’ house, feeling overwhelmed and very grimy after my journey. She showed me my room and told me to settle in; she and little Mycroft were off somewhere for the afternoon. Once they were out of the house my first thought was a bath. Unfortunately, she had forgotten to warn me about the boiler.
When I tried to let in a little more hot water, the first attempt produced nothing. A torrent of icy water gushed forth when I turned the tap fully open. Worse, it evoked hooting, wailing, gurgling from apparently every pipe in the house. The noise built to deafening levels. In sheer panic I leapt out of the bath, wrapped myself in my towel and dashed out. At which moment the door at the end of the landing opened and your father shot forth brandishing a mallet and a monkey wrench. He looked at me, blinked and said, “Ah, Ruprecht’s daughter, of course. Then you’ll know something about applied mechanics. Follow me, and hit whatever I tell you to hit with the mallet.” (His German was quite as good as yours, apart from an atrocious Bavarian accent.)
Taken aback, I gestured at my towel; he dived back into his room, emerging a second or so later with his dressing gown, which he flung at me before pelting down the stairs shouting, “Do keep up.”
We arrived in the cellar, where I hit things under your father’s direction, while he loosened various bits of pipe and tightened them up in apparently random order. Something finally worked - the hideous din died away to gurgles. He looked disgusted, and said, “I’ve designed, built and operated a nuclear reactor in Arctic conditions and it gave me infinitely less trouble than that boiler. Not that I’m supposed to tell you that. Come down to the kitchen and tell me about yourself. And in honour of your sterling efforts with the mallet, let’s break out the Madeira.”
Which was why on my first day as your family’s au pair your mother returned to find me giggling in the kitchen, wearing her husband’s dressing gown and nothing else, while the Professor crawled about the kitchen floor using Mycroft’s chalks to design a nuclear-powered domestic hot-water system suitable to be fitted in the average family basement.
She turned, silently, and left the room. I felt as if I wanted to cry. Your father patted me on the arm and said, “Rosie’s a Newtonian at heart, stuck in an Einsteinian universe. Please make allowances.”
I only dimly grasped what he meant at the time; it was only later I realised your mother didn’t merely dislike disorder (an attitude of mind with which I, a well-brought up German woman and a scientist in the making, had every sympathy) but was positively terrified of it. She saw any deviation from what she considered a properly ordered world as the first step to inevitable chaos and disaster.
Don’t mistake me; we became good friends in time. Also, when I met her brother and uncle – I am coming to that – I understood where her horror of chaos had arisen. When my English had improved enough so that it was a pleasure, not a chore, to read English novels, your father gave me one called “Cold Comfort Farm”. Have you read it? If not, you should. It is very amusing, but it would be a tragedy, I think, to be forced to be Flora Poste in reality.
Friends back in Germany expressed envy that I was in London – “Swinging London”, they still called it – where, they presumed, all the glamour in the world was concentrated.
Nothing could have been less swinging than your parents’ house in Hammersmith. Your mother did not disapprove of the sexual revolution; she was very modern about that sort of thing. But she didn’t see the point of the music or the fashions. Your mother not seeing the point had a very dampening effect on everyone else.
Also, your parents took very seriously that I was not simply their employee, but the daughter of one of your father’s research colleagues. Any young men entering the house were scrutinised thoroughly. Both your parents were terrifyingly observant, which is not a trait any au pair wishes to encourage in her employers, however blameless her life.
So, for me, that year involved concerts at the Wigmore Hall, tea at the tennis club and chaste, prickly dates with tweed-clad post-graduate students, not the sex, drugs and rock and roll of 1960s legend.
Accordingly, as the summer wore on I was nagged by a sense that – to quote a musician who did not perform at the Wigmore Hall – “something is happening, and you don’t know what it is.” I hope that is sufficient excuse for what occurred. I have nothing better.
One August day – my day off – I was reading in the garden. I heard a rustle and looked up to find a tall, dark-haired man lying on the top of the wall. Despite the warm weather he wore an ankle-length overcoat – tweed, I noted regretfully – which draped around him in dramatic folds.
He looked at the house and then back at me as if wondering whether he’d arrived at the wrong place. Then he went through the routine twice more, still without speaking. I started to suspect – accurately, as it turned out – he had been drinking.
When it was becoming absurd, I asked, “Are you looking for Professor Holmes?”
He wrinkled his nose. “That preserved prune? No. For my sister. ‘From the east to western Ind/No jewel is like Rosalind’. Stratford, two years ago. The critics wept, literally wept. Even Larry – the pin-tucked old queen – acknowledged the primal energy of my Orlando. Surely you saw it?”
“I was not in England two years ago,” I said, falling back on politeness. He swung himself down off the wall and dropped into the garden. He stumbled as he landed, tripped on the hem of his coat, and sprawled into the rhubarb patch. He got to his feet with immense dignity.
“Palter with me no longer. I demand an audience with Rosalind.” He swept his arm towards the house and almost overbalanced again.
I told him your mother had taken Mycroft to his Montessori class, but that I was happy to make him a cup of tea if he wished to wait. Even though he’d chosen to enter the house by way of the garden wall I had no doubt he was who he claimed. He had known your mother’s first name, and the family resemblance was striking.
How we got from an offer of tea to drinking your family’s gin on the living room sofa while he undid the buttons on my blouse and quoted Marvell to my breasts, I have never satisfactorily explained to myself. Fortunately the noise of a small boy having a very large tantrum in the hall alerted us to the return of your mother and brother in time for me to adjust my clothing – and, I noticed, for my companion to secrete the gin bottle in one of his coat pockets.
Finding her brother in the house made your mother visibly upset. I “remembered” I’d arranged to see a film with my friend Sally, and that I had to go or risk being late. Sally was the nanny for one of the neighbouring families and we often socialised when our days off coincided.
Your mother – caught between Mycroft, who was still grizzling, and her brother, who was sprawled on the sofa looking supercilious – was too distracted to remember whether I’d told her anything of the sort; just relieved to get me off the premises before the scene which was clearly brewing actually erupted.
I dawdled down the road until I reached the telephone box on the corner. I’d reached a decision in those exhilarating minutes on the sofa. This was the closest I’d come all year to the London of the legends, and I wasn’t going to let it slip away without a fight.
Sally happily agreed to be my alibi, offering reams of excellent advice, all salacious enough to make me blush all over – though not to repent of my intentions. After I finished the call I sat on a convenient wall, repairing my make-up and wishing I was a smoker; it would occupied my shaking hands.
I waited until I saw a tall figure ejected from the house. He turned back on the threshold to expostulate, had the door slammed in his face and began to lounge down the street in my direction. I slid down from the wall and turned to face him.
The rest of the day – I leave to your imagination. We caught a bus, went to Hampstead and wandered up onto the Heath. That part was all I had dreamt of. You have seen the photos.
As evening drew on I became somewhat fed up, however. Could the man bring himself to talk of anything beside himself? Frankly, I doubted it. Also, I’d drunk more than I was accustomed to even before leaving your parents’ house. We finished the gin on the Heath – he drank most of it, though. Then we moved to a Camden pub and matters deteriorated further.
My first experience with a joint, in the pub’s back yard, was a dry-throated, spluttering disaster (also, what is the idea with passing something sodden with someone else’s saliva from person to person? Ugh!). With increasing frequency, my companion looked at his watch. I had ceased to be the main focus of his attention; he was expecting someone else to turn up, someone compared to whom I was a barely tolerable temporary distraction.
Between one implausible theatrical anecdote and the next, something snapped. I rose, muttered an insincere excuse about powdering my nose, and made for the Ladies. The back door of the pub was bare yards away.
Hammersmith seemed like heaven. Your parents’ house was shrouded in darkness when I arrived. As I turned my key stealthily in the lock, kicked off my shoes in the vestibule to protect the parquet and tiptoed stocking-footed towards the stairs, I thought I had got away with it.
Which was when your father emerged, unexpectedly, from the shadows and caught my wrist.
“Rosie’s in bed. Bad headache. Been there since this afternoon. Don’t want to disturb her.”
He drew me into the kitchen, made Horlicks and forced me to drink a mug – worse than the joint, if more hygienic – and swallow a couple of aspirin. When I’d finished, he eyed me up and down as if creating a file on me and then, just as suddenly, relaxed.
“Dull, was it?”
I nodded, dumbly. He seemed to know the whole story without my saying a word.
He smiled at my expression. “A word to the wise. Alibis based on films can be tricky affairs. Especially films one hasn’t seen. Your friend Sally’s description of the ticking time-bomb sequence in “Blow-Up” left me desperately disappointed I’d only seen the dreary Antonioni version, not hers. Anyway. Bed.”
I knew luck when I saw it. I headed upstairs without a backward glance.
Your father didn’t mention the events of that day again. Neither did your mother.
Nor did anyone else. No phone-calls, no letters, no flowers.
I might have been inclined to consider myself heart-broken, but I didn’t want your father to suspect anything of the kind. From pretending indifference it didn’t take very long to achieve that state in reality.
One morning in early November your mother and I were turning out all the kitchen cupboards, preparatory to giving the place a really thorough autumn clean (your father, sensible man, had opted to take Mycroft for his walk while we rolled up our sleeves and got down to it).
The doorbell rang and I went to answer it, finding a very fat man on the doorstep. His face was streaked with tears, his glasses askew, eyes swollen, his white hair wild, his shirt buttoned up all wrong – in fact, he appeared utterly distraught.
“I demand to see Rosalind,” he roared at me. “Find me the beast without a heart!”
I was a second too slow slamming the door; he forced his way past me into the house, where he came face to face with your mother. As soon as he saw her he turned purple, waving his arms around his head, spittle flying from his mouth.
“Murderess! You abandoned your only brother, left him to die alone in a den of wolves. You’re utterly devoid of creative energy yourself, and you’ve devoted your life to stamping out every spark of it in the family. And now you’ve killed him.”
Your mother went dead white. I went up to her in case she needed support but she shook off my hand. “I’ve known Uncle Monty all my life, I can cope. Just find the Professor and bring him back here. Please.”
I caught up with the Professor and Mycroft throwing bread to the ducks on the river. I doubt my explanation made a great deal of sense, but the words “Uncle Monty” seemed to strike home. He looked down at Mycroft and, visibly, paused. Whatever drama was happening back at the house, no child deserved to be thrust into the middle of unbridled adult insanity.
I had an inspiration. Sally’s house was on the way back, and I assured the Professor that Mycroft and I could stay with her for an hour or two, while he sorted things out.
Sally didn’t object, of course. I didn’t mention the extraordinary things your mother’s uncle had said; just explained Mrs Holmes’s brother had died. Sally clearly guessed there was something I wasn’t telling, but cheerfully bridged the gap with stories about her own family. On her description, an uncle calling his niece a murderess on her own doorstep would have fitted right in.
The BBC news bulletin had been playing on the kitchen wireless for some minutes when I finally took in what the announcer was saying.
…yet to release the name of the man whose body was recovered from the wolf enclosure at Regent’s Park zoo early this morning. Police say next of kin are being informed…
Shock hit me like a blow in the chest. I’d taken the reference to “a den of wolves” as hyperbole, but now horrible images flooded my mind. Of course, I assumed the worst; pictured him pinned down, his throat ripped out, the body I had touched so intimately torn apart by wild beasts. And what must your mother have been feeling! Especially since they had parted on bad terms.
My worst fears were ill-founded, as you will see from the newspaper account of the inquest. He had been spotted earlier in the day loitering near the wolf-pen, swigging from a bottle and shouting at the animals. He seems to have carried on drinking – and taking assorted drugs – over the course of the evening. Very late at night he returned to the pen and broke in. Experts in wolf behaviour suggested his drunken self-confidence led the wolves to see him as an alpha member of the pack, so they refrained from attacking.
Even when he finally collapsed – acute alcohol poisoning working on an already chronically damaged liver, according to the coroner’s report – the body remained untouched, until found by a keeper in the morning.
Nevertheless, hard fact came too late. The nightmarish first picture still held its grip on my mind. I believe that also held true for your mother. Another black mark against her Uncle Monty. The police had traced him first – they’d found a scrap of paper in the body’s coat pocket bearing the scribbled address of a property Monty owned in Cumberland. Apparently he and a friend had stayed with Monty there during the previous week.
Monty identified the body, and volunteered to break the news to the rest of the family. No doubt the police were glad to have the job taken off their hands. He
could easily have eased your mother’s worry about how her brother had died, but that had been the last thing on the demented man’s mind.
It was a suspicious age. The Profumo scandal and the Philby defection were barely-healed wounds. Given what I surmise to have been the Professor’s area of research – it was my own father’s – the security ramifications of his brother-in–law dying of an excess of drink and drugs in the wolf-pen at Regent’s Park – to say nothing of his wife’s uncle making lurid accusations to anyone who would listen – must have come close to destroying his career. I expect he had to endure some awkward interviews with the powers that ruled the land.
As for your mother, “The Professor’s work mustn’t be disturbed” was the principle by which she lived. I wouldn’t say this to anyone except you or your brother – Mycroft has never asked – but I believe the thought of the damage done by her appalling family brought her very close to a complete nervous breakdown.
Certainly, even many years later, the slightest allusion to these events provoked a disproportionate reaction. I wonder whether some lingering shadow of these events may have prompted your question, at this late stage? Forgive me if this seems over-familiarity but the last time I saw you I recall thinking you had inherited your height and colouring from your mother’s side of the family – your features are strongly reminiscent of your father’s – and that might not have been an easy legacy for your mother. Even the most determinedly rational people have points on which they are not quite steady.
Neither she nor your father attended the funeral; a wise move, given the likelihood their appearance would have provoked another outbreak from Monty.
It was a small affair – oh yes, I went . The only other mourner of my own age was a young man whose uncharacteristically neat haircut – in that dishevelled age – made me suspect him at first of being AEA police or intelligence services. In fact, he turned out to be an actor, in rehearsal for a play about the horrors of war – not “All Quiet on the Western Front” but something of the same sort – and he’d had to fake food-poisoning in order to come down from Manchester for the funeral.
Before and after the ceremony Monty kept trying to sidle up to the actor – Peter – and Peter latched on to me as a way of avoiding Monty. I wasn’t sophisticated enough in those days to draw conclusions, and no doubt they’d have been the wrong ones. Much as I disliked Monty, I now realise he was dealing, in his own demented way, with a very real grief. But so was Peter. I saw him biting back tears during the short, impersonal service. It brought out my protective instincts. Somehow we gave Monty the slip and ended up in a pub beside Euston station, drinking gin-and-lime and waiting for Peter’s train home. I walked him down to the platform – it seemed like the friendly thing to do – and just as he climbed onto the train he turned to me and said, “I didn’t know. I should have known. But why didn’t the stupid bugger say something?”
And that was it. I hope I have told you all you needed to know but if you wish, please call me. Or, should you be in Germany, you will be very welcome in Stuttgart.
He turned the pages over and over. One phrase struck him and he went back and read it again, then twice more.
Someone should have told me He laughed, an abrupt, harsh sound in the deserted bedroom. On the other hand, I didn’t ask.
He rose, and went to the window, throwing it open. The sun had come out; the sea sparkled green-blue; the fells were grey-brown, picked out here and there with the fresh green of the new season’s bracken. The fresh, wild, salt-marsh scent of the outdoors drifted in through the window.
So: why didn’t the stupid bugger say something?