Chapter 1 - The Revenant by A.J. Hall
Whoever had chosen HQS Wellington for Lanyon’s wake had done well in more ways than they knew. The Grimsby-class sloop moored alongside the chestnut-hung Embankment was a vessel out of time and out of season. Her glories — Dunkirk, the Battle of the Atlantic — were Lanyon’s own, and, like his, already locked in a past which even those of us who had lived through it now thought of as more than half fantasy.
Maybe that was what the younger generation saw in Lanyon’s books. In his best stuff, one can hear the faint echoes of the trumpets of Camelot. Drake’s drumbeats sound even behind the workaday, prosaic agony of a diesel engine gone wrong in a fog-bound shipping lane. The TV adaptation had, wisely, chosen to bring out that aspect.
Just as I arrived at the landward end of Wellington’s gang-plank an oyster-coloured, chauffeur-driven limousine with gold trim drew up behind me and stopped. I half-turned, wondering if this were the stars of the series making an appearance, though the car seemed hardly the BBC’s style.
From its back seat the most curious apparition emerged. It might, I supposed, have once been a man of about my age or perhaps Lanyon’s.
It was, as I said, a warm summer night. Nevertheless, he wore over his electric-blue suit a short mink jacket into which he snuggled, theatrically, as one who should say he was braving the Arctic night for a friend’s sake. His hair seemed to be fighting a losing battle against the twin enemies of crimping irons and hair-dye. So lifeless and contrived was it, it gave the air of having been moulded as one piece with his head, like a Pharoah’s wig on a sarcophagus.
His general air of being well on his way to mummification increased once one saw his face, which had self-evidently known the attentions of a procession of surgeons trying to preserve an illusion of boyish charm, a charm which might never have been very great, even in his salad days. Its skin had now been lifted, stretched and pinned back so tightly that the brows seemed cock-eyed, giving him an air of permanent, owlish surprise.
His voice, when he gave instructions to his driver to await his return, had the high, nasal twang of the West Coast of the United States, with something beneath it which suggested to me that the accent – like much else about the man – was the product of artifice rather than nature.
He pushed past me along the gang-plank and down the companion-way towards the great saloon, the guildhall proper. The condolence book had been set up strategically at the entrance, with a small and tasteful display of Lanyon’s books around it. The Mummy pulled out a gold fountain-pen and signed with a flourish. I paused, admiring a convenient portrait of a long-dead Clerk to the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, to give him time to get clear.
Somewhat to my surprise, he had chosen to inscribe Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit above a signature which occupied three lines and showed signs of encroaching on a fourth, without in any wise achieving legibility. The bold initial “H” of the surname was the only letter of which I had any certainty whatsoever. It occurred to me that it was the signature of a man for whom the process of writing his name had long ago gone subliminal. Autographs or promissory notes; who could tell?
I signed myself the book myself, possessed myself of a glass of a remarkably congenial claret, and drifted unobtrusively through the saloon in the Mummy’s wake. A man who could write “One day we may delight in remembering even these things” in the condolence book at a wake was certainly a man who bore watching. One suspected that whatever had drawn him to this event, sincere regret for the passing of Ralph Ross Lanyon had played remarkably little part in it.
Unexpectedly, after a brief scan around the guildhall, which clearly yielded no joy, he made for another companionway, this time one of those leading onto the upper deck. I prudently recharged my glass before following him outdoors.
“Oh, my Gawd.”
I emerged into the open air to find the Mummy frozen in the act of raising his drink to his lips, staring across the deck of the Wellington like someone who had, all unexpectedly, seen a ghost.
I turned to see what had caught his eye, and saw Miss Nicola Marlow, who appeared to have been leaning over the side watching the progress of the ebb tide and who had now straightened up.
Since I had last seen her in the witness box she had experienced one of those alchemical changes to which teenagers are prone; I recalled them from my own son’s adolescence. One moment they are, still, recognisably children, and then, seemingly overnight they have shot up, become alien beings and you wonder where the child has gone.
In this particular case I strongly suspected the hand of the West girl in the transformation. Miss Marlow seemed at least two inches taller than she had in court last month. She was wearing a trouser suit of unbleached linen, the sort of thing that looks like a crumpled sack on most people, and the essence of chic on the one in a hundred who can bring it off. Her lithe frame suited the style to the nth degree. She had also had her hair cut in a short crop, by someone who knew what they were doing. In short, she presented an overall impression somewhere between an example of Wilfred Owen’s doomed youth and a gamine from one of the West End revues which had brightened my early manhood.
The Mummy snagged a second glass of white wine from a passing waiter and advanced purposefully upon her. She looked up in some alarm at his approach and I, moved by the obvious appeal in her eyes, executed a smart pincer movement so that I arrived on her other side just as the Mummy, with an affected little laugh, was saying, “‘Scuse my presumption but for a moment you reminded me so much of someone I knew when I was young I wondered if I knew your family?”
I assumed my best avuncular manner. “Nicola, so that’s where you’ve got to. Sir Alec asked me to find you. I believe he’s leaving shortly, and he did want to catch up with you before he went and find out how your exams had gone.”
“Yes – of course –” She didn’t quite manage to conceal her relief as she hooked her arm over mine; something about the Mummy had plainly rattled her. She was a well-brought up child, though. As we set off towards the companionway she looked back over her shoulder at him.
“I’ll check at home. But who shall I say was asking?”
The Mummy took a deep breath; almost, it occurred to me as if taking his cue. “Oh, Hazell. Christopher Hazell.”