What Happened at Alamein
by Robert Grossmith
Yes, once I was a hero
But the bombs began to fall.
Vernon Scannell, 'Posthumous Autobiography'
It's now three days since the other brought me my last meal. I know it's three days because I've checked through the door flap six times, once each morning and evening, but the tray I pushed out on Sunday night is still there. Or rather it isn't any more, I pulled it back in this morning. There were a few grains of rice still stuck to the plate, plastered to the unhealthy-looking gravy stain. I picked them off and chewed them slowly one by one, washing them down with water. At least I have an unlimited supply of tap water. One can survive for a long time on water.
I suppose something like this was bound to happen sooner or later, I should have expected it. Neither of us is getting any younger, he's bound to get sick sometimes, or worse.
It's this 'worse' that worries me. No doubt I ought to face up to the fact that the other may be dead. Indeed, that would appear to be the logical conclusion under the circumstances. After all, if he was sick, even very sick, I imagine he'd still be capable of hauling himself to the foot of the stairs and calling up to me for assistance. He still has a voice in his head, I assume.
Not that I'd be likely to hear him above the incessant babble of the four television sets, each tuned to a different channel, chattering to each other in his bedroom. They've been on for three days now without a break. Even by the other's immoderate standards, three days and nights of continuous viewing seems rather excessive, and deepens my concern for his welfare.
It's worth remembering that this isn't the first time I've believed the other dead. It's not even the first time I've been without food for a few days. Over the years there have been numerous occasions when he's failed to bring me my meals, whether through sickness, forgetfulness or indolence I can't say. Such irregularities rarely cause me alarm: I like to fast and invariably send back one or two meals a week uneaten. It's when the single day extends to two or three, as now, that I begin to grow anxious.
For example, there was that time a couple of winters ago when he failed to appear on no less than five days in succession. By the time he did finally show up I'd convinced myself I would never see him again and was doomed to starve to death. Upon his eventual return, therefore, I fully expected some kind of apology, or at least a proper explanation for his absence. In fact, what I received was a note of positively telegraphic economy tucked under the dinner plate on my tray. 'Flu,' it said.
It's on account of experiences such as these that I don't wish to overreact at the present moment and take any incautious action I might later regret, such as leaving my room and venturing downstairs. No doubt to the casual observer my decision to remain in my room and starve when there is sustenance and succour downstairs might seem perverse. My door isn't locked after all, at least not from the outside. Why not open it and save myself? What could be simpler?
How to explain to this hypothetical observer that for me nothing could be less simple, nothing more fraught with anxiety and peril? A fish might as well explain to a bird why it prefers to live in water.
Leaving that aside, there are other, more practical considerations arguing against the wisdom of my venturing downstairs. There is, for example, the matter of the other's traps and alarms. I don't know how many of these there must be in the house by now: dozens, perhaps scores. The last time I was downstairs, around twelve years ago, the house already seemed in danger of collapsing beneath their accumulated weight. A pipe had burst in my bathroom and, somewhat surprisingly, the other claimed to lack the tools and expertise needed to repair it, so that a plumber had to be called in from the village to carry out the work instead.
I remember how shocked I was, as he led me downstairs, at the condition he'd allowed the house to fall into since Mother's death. Where once the polished wood of the banisters positively gleamed with a beeswax sheen, and glazed Chinese pots delicately arranged with dried fern decorated the landings and half-landings, now the place resembled nothing so much as a breaker's yard. Stacked against the banisters and walls was a clutter of what appeared to be the eviscerated remains of various pieces of electrical or mechanical equipment – wirelesses, televisions, gramophones, typewriters, sewing machines – together with an assortment of car batteries and battered petrol canisters. Draped over these were ropes and greasy rags and lengths of electrical cable. 'Don't touch anything,' he said as we negotiated a passage along the thin strip of carpet that remained between the tottering piles of hardware. 'I've disconnected most of them, but you can't be too careful.'
It was a similar story in the rest of the house. The once capacious hallway now looked tiny and cramped, so clogged was it with the products of the other's mechanical mania. All around stood weird contraptions of unfathomable design, monstrous couplings of metal and wood erupting into sets of jagged teeth, complex systems of pulleys and ropes leading to fire buckets marked 'Acid', hanging nets weighted with broken bottles and vicious-looking metal spikes. The door was festooned with sufficient chains and bolts and locks to have protected a small fortress. There were trip wires everywhere.
What it was like in the cellar I never ascertained, as I huddled on the dark stairway just inside the cellar door, afraid even to turn my head, till the other returned to lead me back up to my room.
All this was, as I say, a dozen years or more ago. I have no reason to suppose that the other's manufactory zeal has abated in the meantime. Indeed if the midnight drilling and sawing and hammering that sometimes reaches me from the tool shed out back is anything to go by, the contrary would seem to be the case. I dread to think what it must be like downstairs now. A jungle, a veritable minefield.
There exist very good practical reasons, then, why it would be foolish of me to embark on a tour of inspection downstairs, quite aside from my temperamental aversion to the idea, my preference for being alone. But none of this is to mention the main point, the critical reason why I cannot leave my room, why it is absolutely forbidden me to risk being seen with the other. And that is this: officially I no longer exist, officially the other inhabits my identity, he is me and I am him, or I am no one, I forget which now, he told me once, it's complicated. Perhaps I'll explain later, if there's time.
I say I live alone, but that's merely a figure of speech, for one is never truly alone. Perched up here in my attic fastness, I'm surrounded by life, I'm enmeshed in it. There are for example the dustmen in their noisy appliance trundling up the rutted lane on a Tuesday afternoon. There's Mr Smiles the grocer, or sometimes his son, who delivers our supplies on a Friday morning ('Groceries with Smiles', it says on the side of the van). There's the young family from the old Henderson place who I sometimes see passing Indian-file along the track at the side of the house on their way to Sunday services. Less often there's the postman, or delivery men, or passing hawkers and lost motorists who rap at the front door then gaze inquiringly up at the silent house while I duck behind the curtains for fear of being seen. Rarely does a day pass when I don't spy at least one person from my window. A true recluse, if such a one exists, would have chosen a cellar, not an attic, in which to immure himself.
I'm less demanding. I enjoy this informal contact with the world permitted me via my window, this sense of a continuing link with lives other than my own. It imparts a sense of rhythm to my days, it serves as my calendar and clock: the dustmen on a Tuesday, Mr Smiles on a Friday, the Hendersons (as I can't help thinking of them) on a Sunday. It tells me that the world is going on without me, that order, at least of a relative kind, continues to prevail. One imagines that nothing too terrible can have happened in a world where dustbins are still being emptied and postmen still whistle.
Still no sign of the other.
I've been sitting here thinking about Father, what he might have made of the way our lives have turned out. No doubt he would have been shocked by the dilapidated state into which the house has been allowed to fall. But then Father himself was never the most conventional of men and perhaps after all he would have understood. The fact is that neither the other nor myself ever really knew our father. He died during our sixth year from the malaria he contracted during one of his botanical field trips to southern Africa. Shortly afterwards the other and I were bundled off to a minor public school on the Isles of Scilly – a place where the other excelled in every department, academic and athletic, while I endured years of humiliating physical and verbal abuse at the hands of a small but dedicated cohort of bullies and tormentors – and our intermittent memories of Father quickly began to fade.
Although we shared the same genetic inheritance, the other and I were never the sort of twins who are genuinely indistinguishable. The differences between us, temperamental as well as physical, were apparent from an early age and were directly attributable to the circumstances of our birth: for the other was delivered first and entirely without incident, while I followed a full two hours later after a series of emergency medical procedures the precise nature of which I never enquired into too closely but which, so Mother told me when I was older, I was fortunate to survive.
The legacy of these obstetric difficulties was a weak and delicate constitution, a proneness to infection, and a general physical frailty. I was the sickly one, the clumsy one, the fragile one, the one for whom allowances, apologies, excuses always needed to be made. I suppose some people would call it a kind of enfeeblement, though that's not a word I like. By contrast, the other displayed such athletic robustness and such a talent for good health that it was hard not to see it as a deliberate slap in the face from nature herself, a permanent living reminder of the person I might have been.
If only there was some sure way of determining whether the other is alive or dead without being required to leave the security of my room. But, alas, no such means exists and I therefore have no choice but to allow events to take their course.
Over the years I've given a great deal of thought to the problem of how to communicate my material needs to the other. I don't mean food, I have no say as far as that's concerned, I receive whatever he chooses to bring me, whatever he cooks for himself, a bowl of reheated stew or soup more often than not, with a couple of slices of anaemic-looking bread. No, I mean my more irregular needs, the toiletries and medicines and clothes and suchlike — for clothes do wear out, however sedentary a life one leads, and sometimes one does get sick. After much reflection I've come to the conclusion that no such thing as a perfect system for communicating these needs exists, but that the system we've employed for the past thirty years or so – the notes I leave on my tray when I return it through the door flap – is probably as good as any.
It wasn't the first system we tried. In the early days, after Mother died, the other installed a bell-pull beside my bed, so that I could summon him when needed. That at least was the idea. In practice, what with the house being so large and the other more likely to be found in his bedroom with the wireless or television up loud (he possessed just one television at the time, there being only the one channel to watch) or working out back in the tool shed rather than in the pantry where the bell hung, the chances of my successfully contacting him by this method were less than good. Besides, I rather fancy he objected to the idea that he could be summoned at will like a servant, that he was at my constant beck and call. The system, anyway, was discontinued.
We tried a dumb waiter instead, which the other again manufactured and installed, making use of the wall cavity provided by the old chimney flue. This seemed a more promising arrangement from both our points of view. For the other's part it removed the need for him to climb the stairs twice a day with my meals, while it provided me with a more reliable means of contacting him, and one less likely to give rise to dissent between us, than had been possible with the bell-pull. Should I require a particular item – one of the puzzle or crossword books, for example, with which I used to fill my days or a favourite volume of verse from Father's study – I could now simply write my request on a slip of paper, pop it in the dumb waiter and send it down to the kitchen, where sooner or later he'd be sure to find it. It was a definite improvement.
But I was never entirely happy with the thing, and over time my objections grew. There was for a start the matter of the noise it made, the awful clattering and knocking that could be heard as it scraped against the walls on its journeys up and down the house, which I found a major source of aggravation. Then there was the soot: despite the fact that the other always placed my meals under a covered dish, I would sometimes still find tiny particles of coal dust from the chimney walls adhering to the plate or even peppering the food itself.
These, however, were but minor inconveniences that I might well have overlooked, had it not been for one other, more disturbing consideration: namely, that the dumb waiter provided a direct conduit to the world outside my room and thereby threatened the very privacy it was designed to protect. A man, a small man, a midget say, could quite easily have concealed himself within its chamber and found his way up to my room. This may seem a rather exaggerated anxiety, but it didn't appear so to me. Frequently I would awaken in the middle of the night with the certain conviction that the slight but unmistakable susurration I could make out from inside the flue wasn't the movement of the wind in the chimney but the sound of human breathing. No matter how many times I allayed my anxieties by rising from my bed and lifting the hatch to prove it was empty, this fear continued to haunt me. I knew that as long as the device remained in place I would never feel entirely secure.
Accordingly a compromise was agreed upon in the form of the door flap and the note-passing routine. This had the advantage over the dumb waiter in that it removed any suspicion that I might be harbouring an intruder in my room unawares, while still allowing me to communicate my needs to the other without making myself physically present to him. Its disadvantage was that it permitted these transactions to occur only twice a day, at more or less fixed times. Should my light bulb suddenly need replacing late at night, for instance, or should I develop a headache after my evening meal and require a couple of aspirin to help me sleep, I had no way of conveying these demands to the other at short notice; there was no alternative but to wait till the morning.
It was for this reason that I began stocking up on essential items – asking for a new light bulb before the old one failed, for example – so that over time I've been able to accumulate a plentiful reserve of most of the articles I need. Indeed, my principal problem has become no longer how to ensure that I don't run out of supplies, but how to find sufficient space in my cramped living-quarters in which to store them all. As I look around me now, I'm barely able to distinguish my walls, so high are the false walls of toilet rolls, light bulbs, soap, toothpaste, candles, earplugs, soap flakes, shampoos, lotions and assorted medicaments that rise stockade-like around me on three sides of the room. The only thing that's missing, alas, is anything remotely edible.
Hunger is a curious thing. One imagines that after a time it passes, one's stomach shrinks, one's body adapts, one no longer desires food, indeed is no longer able to accept it. I'm some way from that stage. I'm still at the hunger pangs stage, violent clawings and gnawings in the pit of my stomach like a rat in an empty dustbin.
I feel so weak, even weaker than usual, utterly drained of energy. It's as much as I can do to raise myself onto one knobbly elbow in the bed in order to scratch these words in my notebook. I'm tempted to remain here the rest of the day. What's to be gained from rising?
But that won't do. Today is delivery day after all. The moment of truth. Today will tell whether my fears on the other's account are justified. Should the groceries remain uncollected on the porch, only one conclusion will be possible.
I'm unclear as to the precise details of the other's arrangement with Mr Smiles. Does he telephone his order in each week? Or does he receive a standard weekly delivery, 'phoning only when his requirements change? If the former, as seems probable, one can assume that he places his order towards the middle or end of the week, and that therefore no order has gone out this week. How is Mr Smiles likely to respond to such an omission? Will he grow concerned and try telephoning the house? But why then have I not heard the 'phone ring — unless the ringing was drowned by the sound of the televisions? Or will he send someone to investigate, his son perhaps. Will he have a word with the local constabulary? Will he note the fact that the other's order hasn't arrived but choose to ignore it? Will he not even notice in the first place?
It's essential I maintain a routine in my life. Routine is the essence of a disciplined life: to abandon routine is to renounce hope. Accordingly I've risen from my bed, I've performed my morning ablutions as usual, brushing my teeth with Minty-Gel (the absurd, childish names they give products these days!), scrubbing my face, dragging a comb through my grizzled beard and hair. I've washed my socks and underpants in the sink and hung them to dry on the line above the bath. In the absence of solid food I breakfasted on a glass of sedimentary tap water. Out of habit I made an attempt at evacuating my bowels, without success.
Now there's nothing left to do but sit and wait.
I've been sitting here thinking about dust. These rooms haven't been cleaned, not properly cleaned, for over fifty years. Dust lies everywhere, coats everything, like folds of desert sand, like drifts of grey snow. I remember reading somewhere long ago that eighty percent of house dust consists of particles of dead skin, and that each person sheds on average four pounds of skin a year.
By that reckoning I must have lost more than my own body weight in skin since I moved to this room. There are two of me here now, the one who thinks and breathes and writes these words and the one who lies scattered and dispersed on the floor, the dust man, the other other. Thus each of us in the fullness of time gives birth to his own twin.
Still no sign of Smiles or son. They usually call around lunchtime. If Mr Smiles is driving, the whole thing is done at a relaxed, leisurely pace and with a maximum of efficiency, the boxes carefully lifted from the back of the van and carried one by one up the steps to be deposited on the porch directly outside the front door, sheltered from the rain. If his son is driving on the other hand (at least I assume the fellow to be his son, but perhaps the red hair is a coincidence), the operation is conducted at an altogether more frantic pace. Smiles Junior will hurtle into the drive at top speed, then slam on the brakes a few yards from the house so that the back of the van is made to slew round, spraying gravel everywhere, to present its rear doors to the steps. He'll then leap from the cab, fling open the doors and pile the boxes one on top of another before staggering with them up the steps, sending their contents spilling and crashing to the ground. He'll leave the boxes at whatever point on the steps he's reached before his arms give out, thoughtfully unstacking them first so that any rain will be distributed equally among them. Finally, as he spins off in a cloud of dust and noxious fumes, he'll beep loudly several times on his horn, whether as a way of notifying the other that he's called (as if such a signal were necessary!) or as some kind of mocking taunt I've never been able to decide.
I remind myself, standing here hour upon hour peering through my window for a sign of the Smiles' van, of a marooned sailor scouring the horizon for passing ships, a tell-tale puff of smoke, the promise of salvation. The difference being that I have no wish to be rescued. I wish only to be left in peace.
The other is dead, no other conclusion is possible. He's fallen victim to one of his own traps or he's had a heart attack or a fall. Either way he's dead and I'm alone.
It's now several hours since young Smiles was here with our groceries. Standing here at my window, I can plainly make out the three boxes, teetering where he left them on the edge of adjacent steps. The front door, however, has remained resolutely closed. In the house all is stillness and silence, barring the continuous garbled jabber of the televisions. So that's it then. The other is gone and I'm on my own. I always felt it would somehow be more dramatic than this.
I see my prospects as follows. Either someone will come to the house in the next day or two and see the groceries and grow suspicious and ring the bell but receive no answer and inform the police and I'll be discovered, or not. If not, I'll die. But if I'm discovered, what then? Would I be allowed to carry on living here alone? But how would I look after myself? Or would I be placed in an institution, forced to weave wicker baskets alongside shaven-headed droolers and unwashed imbeciles? My prospects, it must be said, don't look good.
Desperate conditions provoke desperate remedies. For some time now I've been sitting here meditating on the possibility of constructing a sort of makeshift fishing line with which to angle for packages of food from my window. I might use a length of unravelled yarn from one of my sweaters, say, or perhaps a double length for extra strength, attached to the metal hook on which I hang my towel. The yarn would need to be weighted to stop it from blowing in the wind, and the hook sharpened to enable it to pierce the wrappers of the packages, but in theory it might be done. Were I the other, did I possess but a trace of his mechanical aptitude, I might be able to carry it off. But I'm not the other, the other is dead, I have to keep reminding myself, I fear it hasn't fully registered yet.
Sometimes I'm unable to remember which of us I am. I genuinely forget. The names we were given are so similar and life has cast us in such an intimate, divided partnership – like two sides of a coin welded back-to-back – that I sometimes forget which is which. Who is Hughie? Which is Howie? It's for this reason I choose to refer to him as the other. It prevents mistakes.
Did I mention, too, that I sometimes suffer from what I believe are called fugue states? Lost time, temporary amnesia, blackouts, memory lapses, call them what you will. That's to say, I go missing in my head. One moment I'll be comfortably ensconced at my desk with a well-thumbed book or soaking dreamily in the bath and the next moment I'll find myself lying in bed or eating my dinner with no recollection of how I got from one situation to the other. There's a hole, a gap, a yawning chasm, where my memory should be. Perhaps this is the price one pays for all the years, decades of solitude. Finally one becomes absent even from oneself.
Late last night I was awoken by a frightful wailing and howling like the cries of a man in extremis. It took me some moments to recognise that the awful sounds were originating from outside my window rather than inside my own sleep-befuddled brain. I crawled out of bed and poked my head through the window in an exploratory fashion but could make out little in the darkness. After a while I realised that it must be a pack of animals of some description — though of what description precisely I can't say: wild, domestic or feral, cats, dogs, badgers, foxes? Do badgers howl? — scrimmaging over the contents of the grocery boxes below. I made a series of rather ineffectual shooing noises into the night, then splashed a glass of cold water towards what I judged to be the source of the disturbance, but to no avail. The baying or caterwauling continued. Eventually I despaired of frightening the creatures away, closed the window, inserted a pair of earplugs and returned to bed, where I failed dismally to sleep. The wailing remained clearly audible, if muted, for a number of hours, creating visions in my mind of a stricken other, dangling from the ceiling with his feet in a noose or lying with his ankles clenched in the steel jaws of a bear-trap amid a pool of congealed blood. It was the worst night yet.
This morning it was an effort even to rise. The idea of washing and dressing struck me as an insurmountable and pointless labour. Who should I groom myself for, the undertaker? I was eventually persuaded to leave my bed by the need to relieve myself. I donned my threadbare dressing gown, drank half a glass of water, emptied my bladder – my urine is now the same colour as the water I drink – and hauled my brittle bones to my desk.
I'd written only a few lines when I recalled last night's disturbance. I got up from my desk and opened the window, leaning across the sill the better to take stock of the situation. The three grocery boxes, I saw, had been upended, their contents scattered across the steps and onto the drive. Everywhere were crushed packets and squashed tubs, broken jars and shattered bottles: milk, butter, jam, porridge, biscuits, rice, a battered carton of eggs, a large loaf of bread still in its gaudy cellophane wrapper. Most of the packages had been ripped open, spilling their contents onto the ground. Halfway down the drive a roll of toilet paper torn from its wrapping lay stranded on the gravel, trailing a twisted tail behind it like a grounded kite.
Against my better judgement I then wasted three hours engaged in the very endeavour I decided yesterday against undertaking: namely, angling for food packages from my window with an improvised fishing rod. I rejected a number of unsatisfactory designs for the rod before returning to the simpler model I envisaged yesterday: a double length of yarn from an unravelled sweater weighted with the brass knobs from my chest of drawers and attached to my towel hook at one end and a wooden strut from the underside of my armchair at the other.
With almost my first attempt I managed to hook the bag of rice. I could scarcely believe my good luck. I gently took hold of the yarn and began raising it slowly towards me.
Unfortunately, but as I ought to have suspected, the bag was split at the seam. As it rose into the air, gravity took over. The higher it rose, the wider grew the gaping hole and the more copiously the rice was funnelled through it, raining onto the ground below. I saw my life scattering before me. By the time I at last hauled the bag in, there were precisely six grains of rice left inside.
Despondent but not defeated, I turned my attentions to the loaf. That too was split open, a few mauled slices escaping onto the gravel, but this time I managed to hook the open end of the wrapper. It was heavy and the yarn gave a good yard or two before taking the weight. After a deal of manoeuvring I succeeded in lifting it a few inches into the air but the weight was too much, the cellophane ripped, the hook flew free and the loaf bounced back to earth. I tried the same operation several more times, each time with similar results.
It was the same story with the box of Cheerios (I believe that's what they were called, a peculiarly apt name it occurred to me). The bunch of ravaged banana stumps proved a total waste of time. Eventually, after two hours or more of these fruitless – I suppose there's a joke of sorts there – and backbreaking endeavours, I decided to call it a day. I hauled in the line, closed the window and sank back onto my bed, close to tears. What a pathetic waste of time, whose sole achievement has been to aggravate the ache in my right shoulder incurred as a result of these equally futile exertions with the pen.
Still those four televisions babble on incessantly downstairs, infecting the air with their raucous colloquy. I sometimes wonder whether I wasn't born more sensitive than other people. Each of my senses is so finely attuned, I'm used to making do with so little in the way of sensory stimulation, that I doubt I could re-enter the world now even if I wished to. The sights and sounds would blind me, deafen me, the ripe unfamiliar smells choke and stifle me.
I'm used to a diet of invariance. The view from my window – the verdant undulating landscape, the fields and hedgerows, pylons, a few sheep – has scarcely changed in fifty years. The sound of birdsong in the morning, the taste of overcooked root vegetables, the smell of my own body, these are as much as I can comfortably tolerate.
Sometimes even here I find my senses overloaded. The clatter of the dustcart as it trundles up the track, the roar of a jet aeroplane searing a path through the ozone, these are almost more than I can bear. I'm forced to clap my hands over my ears, bury my head in a pillow, till the interruption is past.
Something very peculiar has happened. I don't understand it, it frightens me. The groceries that yesterday lay strewn down the front steps and across the drive have disappeared, all of them. Even the toilet roll has vanished, even the boxes have gone. The drive is now quite unlittered. The wind couldn't have blown the groceries away. Animals wouldn't have been so fastidious as to have removed the boxes along with the food. Someone, clearly, must have picked everything up, taken it in.
That alone would have been perplexing enough. But in addition the televisions have now been switched off. They were still jabbering away to one another when I went to sleep last night, but when I woke this morning there was silence in the house. I've been listening hard throughout the morning, crouching at the door, for any sounds of activity downstairs. Once, I'm sure, I heard a door slam and another time I swear I heard footfalls on the stairs.
All this leads me to one inescapable conclusion: the other is still alive. But that being the case, I'm still more confused. Where has he been this past week, what has he been doing? Has he been ill? Or has he been away somewhere? But he never goes anywhere other than the occasional trip in his van to purchase some component for his traps that cannot be delivered. And, even more alarming, why has he still not brought me any food? Is this a deliberate choice on his part or a mere oversight? Is he even aware that I'm up here starving to death, chewing on my knuckles and the leather bindings of old books for want of genuine sustenance? Could it be that he's grown confused and forgetful, much as Mother did in her later years when she took to making the beds with newspapers in place of sheets and serving meals of potato peelings and carrot tops? Perhaps he'll soon have a period of lucidity and suddenly recall my existence. Or is the whole thing more sinister than that? Is it possible that he's exacting some perverse revenge on me? But why? For what? For having opted out of life, for having chosen to closet myself in this attic hermitage, for having rejected the public world in favour of my own private domain? But surely he must recall that I did this at least partly on his account, so that he might cloak himself in my identity and thus escape his past. What could I conceivably have done to deserve the terrible punishment he seems determined to inflict on me, to deserve such a slow drawn-out execution?
There is of course – or would be, were I to undertake it – a simple way of answering these questions. I could step outside my door and call down to him. I could even remain inside my room and bang on the door till he's forced to take notice. But I'll do neither. I'm too frightened of how he might react, I don't wish to provoke him further. I've contented myself instead with pushing my dinner tray back through the door flap in the hope that he may see it and be moved to take pity on me. More in hope than in expectation of any response I've scribbled a short note, which I've propped upright on my plate. I don't know if it will do any good. It reads simply: PLEASE.
I'm barely able to stand, so weak do I feel, so unsteady on my legs. The effort of filling these pages grows more exhausting by the hour. Even a few minutes' writing causes my fingers to grow numb, making the pen impossible to grip. I'm forced to take frequent breaks to allow the sensation to return. The labour involved in raising a glass of water to my lips is enough to leave me gasping and breathless. My hand is so palsied that barely half the water reaches my throat, the remainder splashing and spilling down the front of my dressing gown.
I've abandoned all efforts at washing or grooming. The air is rank with the smell of my own putrefaction. This morning in the bathroom I happened to glimpse my reflection in the mirror. I barely recognised myself, so gaunt and ghostly pale was my face, so sunken my cheeks, so dark and bruised the orbits of my eyes, so cracked and grimy my skin. I resemble some ancient Old Testament prophet, a bedridden Jeremiah, withered and toothless, gasping his last lament.
The televisions are back on again. I'm trying to lead a normal life, trying not to guess at the other's intentions, trying to act as if nothing was amiss.
How were we to know, when the telegram arrived in late 1942, that its contents were not to be believed? There are some things I can never forgive the other for. His factitious death during the war was one such action.
For a while I was convinced it would be the death of Mother too. Perhaps in the end it was, despite the fact that the other was home by then, for she never really recovered from the shock dealt to her system by the arrival of that telegram. 'MISSING, BELIEVED KILLED IN ACTION,' it said, but we both knew that that 'missing' was a transparent attempt to sugar the pill. Why didn't they come straight out with it?
For over a month she barely emerged from her bedroom, sobbing and wailing hysterically at all hours of the day and night. The doctor visited her regularly and prescribed a course of sedatives, but they seemed to have little effect. I cooked her meals and tried to console her as best I could, but I had my own grief to contend with and it wasn't easy.
Early in the new year a letter of condolence arrived from the other's CO in the Royal Engineers, a Lt-Col Bigsby. In it he explained that the other had been killed on the night of October 31st during the Second Battle of El Alamein while destroying enemy ordnance in the field. He assured us that the other had died instantly, in an explosion, and could not possibly have suffered. His remains were never recovered but a dog-tag was found and this was enclosed with the letter. There followed the conventional eulogy and expressions of sympathy that the Lt-Col and others like him must have written thousands of times before. I can still recall his closing words. 'Your son was a fine young officer who would surely have risen much higher in the ranks had he been granted the opportunity. Rest secure in the knowledge that, thanks in part to your boy's brave efforts, the enemy was bested and the battle finally turned in our favour. It may well prove to have been a turning-point in the war. You may be justly proud of him.'
Also enclosed with the Lt-Col's message was a short poem, discovered afterwards in the other's kit and written in a neat sloping hand almost indistinguishable from my own.
Letters from the Line
Desert wars are dirty wars.
Everywhere, ubique, is the sapper's motto,
Sapper means digger of trench.
Everywhere here are sand and flies and
Rats against the Übermensch.
Thirst, heat, dust, fatigue and
Everywhere death's ripening stench.
Desert wars are desperate wars.
Not for us the spangled glamour
Of victory charge with bugle and banner,
The battle cry, the glorious clamour.
Desert wars are dirty wars.
Every day the death toll mounting,
Advance, fall back, past corpses past counting.
Desert wars are desperate wars.
Seeing the poem before me again, I find it hard to believe that I could have failed to spot its hidden acrostic. Perhaps my critical faculties were clouded by my grief. But as I sat alone at the kitchen table poring over its contents, all I could see was a bitter outcry against the horrors of modern warfare composed under the stress of battle by a mind on the verge of collapse. To me they were the words of a man who sensed that he himself was soon to die. They explained his death, they confirmed and completed it, they didn't refute it.
It was only the following morning, as I sat alone again at the kitchen table reading the poem once more, squeezing it for every last drop of meaning – what was one to make of the title, for example, which seemed to bear no relation to the sentiments expressed in the poem itself? – that illumination finally broke. I got up to make a cup of tea, weary of my inquisition. But I'd left the envelope in such a way that it lay directly across the poem, obscuring all but the first letter of each line. I glanced down and suddenly, in a blinding flash of apprehension, saw the poem afresh, perceived it for what it was, not really a poem at all but a linguistic device, a verbal contrivance, a machine made of words.
I grabbed the poem and raced to the drawing room where Mother sat in her chair, shaking the single page in her face. 'Lululook!' I said, 'lulook! Luluetters from the Luline. My God, Mother, don't you see? It cucan't be coincidence, it just cucan't.' I ran my thumb down the left-hand column of the poem so she could read the words it spelled out. 'He's alive, Mother, he's alive!' We looked at each other for a moment in stunned, incredulous silence. Then Mother began to weep.
Afterwards came the doubts. Could it not be simple coincidence after all? And why didn't he send us the poem so we received it before we heard of his death? Why leave it to be found with his kit? How could he be certain we'd receive it at all? Moreover, what if in trying to fabricate his own death – if that was indeed what he'd done – he'd actually been killed by mistake? What if he'd been killed before he even had the chance to counterfeit his death? And even supposing everything had gone as planned, that the ploy had been successful and he'd managed to desert without being discovered, who was to say he was still alive? What were the prospects for a deserter in the Western Desert? And why hadn't he sent word – something more than a piece of coded verse – to confirm he was safe? The doubts formed a chain and danced a conga in our heads.
The uncertainty proved too much for Mother. She was never the same again. We lived from day to day, from hour to hour, not knowing whether to mourn or rejoice, whether to bury the other in our memory or expect at any moment a knock upon the door. It was four years before we received an answer.
I've just eaten my first meal in more than a week. It consisted of two moths, a brownish one and a greyish one, which I found clinging to the curtains when I awoke this morning and promptly drowned in the sink and peeled. Why not, after all? Birds eat them, they must possess some nutritional value. They tasted of nothing much, slightly salty and astringent, and my stomach seemed to accept them without demur. Tonight I'll leave the lights switched on and the window open to the night air. Tomorrow perhaps I'll dine on a cold collation of moth meat.
The dustmen are here, emptying the bin. I can't see them, their machine is obscured by the curve of the drive with its high untrimmed hedges, but I can hear them well enough. Why their engine has to be so loud escapes me.
The fact that they're making a collection at all is further confirmation that the other is alive. The bin would otherwise have been empty. He must have slipped out with the refuse sacks while I slept, late last night or early this morning.
I've abandoned all hope of receiving a reply to my note. This morning as usual I checked the door flap, but my dinner tray is exactly as I left it, my simply-worded appeal still propped on the furry plate. Nor have there been any further signs of activity downstairs aside from the intermittent blare of the televisions, switching on and off the silence. I'm at a loss to understand the other's fondness for these violent machines, these producers of screams and random gunfire, laughter and tumultuous applause. Who would wish to share their home with all these rowdy strangers?
I'm feeling very low, I can't stop thinking of food. I'm reduced to ever more humiliating expedients. An hour ago I crawled from my bed and rooted among the tumbledown pyramids of light bulbs, lavatory paper, medicines and toilet requisites rising from the floor in the hope of turning up something, anything, edible. I returned to bed with my booty and arranged it on the bedspread before me: a jar of aspirin, a half-drunk bottle of ancient Liquifruita, a tube of Alka-Seltzer, five honey and lemon throat lozenges, a twin-pack of Minty-Gel toothpaste, two candles and three bars of soap. I finished off the cough mixture in a single greedy guzzle and have already eaten three of the throat lozenges – the remaining two I'll save for later. As for the rest, the Alka-Seltzer is of little value and rather ironical under the circumstances, and the soap, candles and toothpaste I simply cannot face. The aspirin, however, may well turn out to be a godsend later, when things get worse.
The evening cool has come, and as usual I feel somewhat revived. I must press on with my story before my strength gives out completely.
The other's return didn't take place in the manner I expected, insofar as I expected it at all. Whenever I played the scene out in my mind I always imagined for some reason that it would take place on a bright summer afternoon. I would be in the kitchen preparing dinner and suddenly I would turn and there he would be, leaning in the open doorway, one foot raised against the jamb, smiling his insouciant smile at me. But it didn't happen like that. It happened instead in the middle of the night during the worst winter I've ever witnessed.
I can't identify the exact year, it must have been '46 or '47. We'd been snowed in for nearly a week and without power for several days. We had a little food left but no fuel. Mother and I spent most of our time in our beds, swaddled deep in blankets and coats against the biting cold. I'd made two fruitless attempts to walk across the fields to the village in order to fetch supplies, but each time had to turn back before I'd even reached halfway.
I answered the midnight knocking at the door with the bedclothes wrapped around my shoulders for extra warmth. The knocking had woken me with a start. A visitor at any time was a rare occurrence, at this ungodly hour and in this weather it was unheard-of. I opened the door a crack, letting in a blast of frozen air, and peered out over the candle I held before me. A tall bearded stranger stood huddled on the porch, clad in an overcoat several sizes too large for him, with a torchlight which he raised and aimed at my face. I was dazzled and could make out little in the glare. It wasn't until he spoke that I recognised him.
'Let me in. Quickly.'
He pushed past me and turned the key in the lock behind him, then led me across the hallway to the drawing room. Once inside he closed the door and made his way to the fireplace, the whole time without speaking. The torchlight beam picked out a chair against the wall, an elegant Hepplewhite or Sheraton, I never could tell the difference. He lifted it up and brought it down upon his knee, snapping off each of the slim delicate legs in turn. He knelt at the hearth and proceeded to build a fire with the wood. Only then did he glance back over his shoulder and speak again.
'O to be in England, eh?'
I stared at him in silence, incapable of speech. Suddenly the door opened and there stood Mother. She was dressed in an old black trenchcoat of Father's that trailed the ground, a shivering candle in her hand. She cast her eyes about her in the gloom.
'What is it, Howard? Who's this you've got with you? What's going on?'
The other left off tending the fire, stood up and crossed the room towards her. Mother tensed visibly as if expecting to be attacked by this unwholesome-looking stranger who was breaking up her furniture in the middle of the night. The other stopped in front of her and there was a moment of silence. He said a few quiet words which I didn't catch. Then Mother let out a strange strangled cry more reminiscent of a wounded animal than a human being and flung herself weeping upon his breast.
There were tears and hugs all round that night. There were more tears and hugs than words. 'Later, later,' the other would say whenever we asked him another question. 'I'll explain everything later.' He looked terribly tired, he looked older than he should have done, older than me. His thin tanned face betrayed the signs of years spent out of doors, in sunnier climes. It was clear from the confidential glances we exchanged that he was as shocked by Mother's appearance as we were by his, but he hid it well.
'Any chance of a cup of tea?' he said finally, after the second or third wave of hugs and tears had subsided. 'I'm parched. Bite to eat wouldn't go amiss either, assuming you've got anything. Mustn't let the staff catch wind I'm back, though. Keep it under our hats, you know.'
I explained that there were no staff at the house now, just Mother and myself, an announcement which seemed to delight the other.
He laughed. 'Christ, if I'd known that, I wouldn't have been so bloody careful about not being seen. You don't know the trouble I took coming here.'
'I'll make the tea,' I said. We had a small Calor gas stove that we'd been using while the power was down. I gathered one of the candles and repaired to the kitchen, leaving mother and son to continue their reunion alone.
The other's story emerged bit by bit over the course of several days. At first he refused to talk about the reasons for his desertion at all, glossing over it with elliptical references to 'what happened at Alamein'. It was only when he and I managed to find some time alone one night after Mother had retired that he opened up to me.
A partial thaw had set in and the power was back on. I'd even managed to drive the mile or so along the road into the village to stock up with food and fuel. The house was warm again, or at least no longer freezing, and our stomachs were full.
The other had cut his hair and shaved his beard off and looked much more like the twin I knew of old. He looked like a more undernourished, tanned version of myself. For most of the time his mood was one of rather unconvincing high spirits. He joked a lot but the jokes were never funny. He smiled a lot, but with the mouth not with the eyes. When he talked about the war this thin veneer of geniality fell away, peeling back to reveal a deeper, darker seam of emotion. When he spoke about Alamein his tone became hushed and solemn.
'I saw such things in North Africa,' he said, 'such things you wouldn't believe. Death and mutilation of course, though that was nothing new, I'd seen plenty of that already, at Tobruk and elsewhere, I was battle-hardened. But then at Alamein a couple of lads from my platoon were picked off by an enemy patrol one night while out clearing mines – our job was to open a path through the German minefields so our tanks could safely pass through – and the next day I saw a scrum of men, not sappers I hardly need add, looting their bodies, turning out their pockets for valuables. Sickening, just sickening. This wasn't war, this was barbarism, this was hell pure and simple. I suppose I cracked. I prayed to God for guidance and He told me to walk away, to leave it all behind. So that was what I did.' He paused before continuing. 'You have to understand, Howie, I wanted nothing more to do with it, nothing more to do with the human race. I just wanted to come home.'
Slowly he filled in the gaps in his story. He explained how he staged his own demise while out detonating a disabled German tank by stripping the tank's dead driver of his uniform and distributing his own dog-tags and other personal effects about the turret, having previously buried a set of stolen Bedouin clothing among some nearby dunes. He related how he made his way slowly on foot to Alexandria, sixty miles away along the coast, where he saw out the remaining eighteen months of the war holed up in the crypt of an old church, courtesy of a compassionate priest. The priest brought him food and found him odd pieces of work repairing sewing machines, wirelesses, wristwatches and the like. Later, when the war was over, he began venturing out of the crypt occasionally, but the place was still swarming with soldiers, he said, and he never felt safe.
Eventually he came to a moment of crisis. Should he stay in Alex and make a life for himself there, with everything that entailed? Strike out somewhere else under a new identity? Or come home?
He managed to buy some false identity papers and make it to Greece, and from there he worked his way across Europe, following the fruit harvest northwards. It took him eighteen months in all. Europe was awash with refugees, hordes of the homeless and the dispossessed, he said, and he was able to pass among them like a ghost.
Sleep is impossible. It's like an insect house in here, a vivarium, with moths and crane flies everywhere. They fill the room in a snowy whirling cloud, they carpet my bedspread, they feather the curtains, they hover and perch on the end of my pen like familiars. I'm sure there are moths tangled in my hair. I have the feeling they're taking over the room and with it my body. By the morning I will have been assimilated entirely, so that nothing will remain of me but an empty furry carapace.
I've been trying to reconstruct in my mind the sequence of events that led to my removal to this room, this solitude. It didn't happen all at once, it was a gradual process, it occurred in stages.
I remember we'd been talking, the three of us, about what the other was going to do now that he was back. Clearly, if he wished to remain living in the house – and it appeared that he did – his identity would have to be concealed. It was the other who suggested it might be concealed behind my own.
It was the obvious solution, he told us. So long as the two of us were never seen together, so long as one of us remained indoors whenever the other was out, there was no reason why we couldn't both continue living in the house, both pretend to be me. Once his suntan faded, there would be no telling us apart physically, and he'd always been able to do a disarmingly convincing imitation of my stammer and facial tics, an ability we'd put to good use as children. In short, he would have no difficulty at all passing for me among the few shopkeepers and other locals of my acquaintance. Forging my signature wouldn't pose a problem either, our handwriting being so similar. In fact the only drawback, as far as he could see, was that we would have just the one ration book between the two of us, which was hardly the end of the world, was it?
This didn't sound like the other I knew. I wondered if perhaps he still hadn't fully recovered from the trauma of 'what happened at Alamein'. The other I knew would never have been content with the sedentary pleasures of hearth and home. It was impossible to avoid the feeling that some vital, essential part of him had been destroyed or left behind at Alamein. What returned was the husk.
Still, I was forced to admit that his suggestion wasn't unappealing to me. It would certainly give me greater freedom. As things stood, I went out rarely and only on essential errands, being too busy with my duties about the house and unwilling besides to leave Mother alone for longer than was necessary. The new arrangement would relieve me of some of the burden of these dual responsibilities. We could share the work between us. It would mean I could go on long solitary walks again, something I hadn't done in years. It sounded like the perfect solution.
The rules were simple. Whenever one of us left the house, the other would remain indoors and out of sight. If there was a knock upon the door, one of us would make ourselves scarce. That was really all there was to it.
And so it was decided. The other would become me. We would share the same identity. I would split myself in two. Je est un autre, as the poet said.
And this is how we've lived, the other and I, for it must be 50 years or more now. More certainly because a year or two ago I overheard one of the other's squawking televisions saying something about the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Which means, goodness, we must be well into a new century, a new millennium, by now. Judging by the jumbled snippets I've involuntarily imbibed from those infernal machines in recent times, it seems no better than the last one.
Whoever could have predicted it would all end like this? Whoever could have imagined the other would neglect me in this way, leaving me to die unattended and forgotten, ignoring my pleas for help? Who would have thought I would end my days starving to death amid a blizzard of winged wildlife?
There is one final memory I want to commit to paper while I still have the strength, though I'm not sure why. A visit many years ago from the man who served as the other's batman in North Africa and who turned up at the house out of the blue one summer afternoon back in the 1970s.
I was standing by my open window, taking the air, when he called. I saw him approaching on foot along the drive, walking slowly and hesitantly, looking up at the house as if unsure whether he'd come to the right address and he expected at any moment to be collared for trespassing. He was a stout bull-necked fellow in his fifties, dressed in a crumpled grey jacket and voluminous check trousers. I ducked behind the curtain as his gaze travelled upwards to take in the pantiled roof.
The other was slow in answering the door and for a moment I thought that, as frequently happened, he'd deliberately chosen to ignore the caller. But just as the fellow appeared to have given up and was returning down the steps, the door finally opened. He turned on his heels and spoke to the invisible figure above him.
'Oh sorry to bother you, sir. You don't know me but I used to know your brother. In the army. I was his batman.'
There was a moment's awkward silence before the other spoke. I didn't hear what he said but I heard his stammer. I looked down through the window and saw that he'd emerged from the porch and onto the steps.
'I just happened to be in the area by chance,' the caller continued. 'I'm on holiday with the wife and kids – just down the road we are, in Budleigh Salterton – and I recognised the name of the village as we passed through. Your brother spoke about it quite a lot, what a lovely place it was and all, how he looked forward to going back after the war. He spoke about you as well, sir. Least, he mentioned he had a twin.'
Again the other stuttered something indistinct, evidently a question.
'The name's Carson, sir. Bert Carson. Your brother used to call me Khazi.' He laughed. 'You know, army slang. So anyway I inquired at the grocer's in the village to see if Mr Mauberley's family still lived in the area and, friendly chap, he directed me up here. I was all for leaving it at that but my wife said I should go along and pay my respects, said you'd probably be pleased to hear from someone who knew him before — well, you know, sir. I've left the wife and kids in the car at the gate,' he added. 'Didn't seem right for us all to roll up here unannounced like.'
Mr Carson and the other chatted for several more minutes. Or rather, so it seemed to me, the other listened while Carson related his glowing recollections of the other.
'Some of the officers weren't worth tuppence, sir, if you really want to know. Thought they were superior to everyone else. Your brother wasn't like that, one of the best he was, a real gent. Such a terrible waste, sir. It hit everyone very hard.'
Or again: 'I remember before the Big Show he gathered us all together and gave us a pep talk. Told us if we were successful the battle would change the course of the war, told us we were about to make history. Said that in years to come the mere mention of the fact that we'd fought at Alamein would guarantee us a free drink in every pub in Britain. That men who hadn't fought there would envy us our good luck. It was an inspiring talk, it really did give us a boost. Made most of us almost happy to be there. Yes, he was quite a chap, sir, your brother. But then I hardly need tell you that.'
I had to smile: the other as Prince Hal. But I was perplexed. How could he have gone from inspirational leader of men to deserter in a matter of days?
Finally Carson made his excuses. 'Better get off, sir, the wife'll be getting worried about me. And you've probably got better things to do than stand here all day chin-wagging with me.'
The other shook his hand warmly and said he'd walk with him to the end of the drive. I watched them as they strolled along, chatting and smiling. The other had even appropriated my limp. It was quite uncanny, almost as if I'd stepped outside my own body and was looking down on it from above.
Afterwards I made a brief unwonted trip downstairs in order to confirm that the danger had passed, that our secret hadn't been tumbled. The other dabbed a handkerchief to his eyes as he spoke.
'You know, Howie, for a moment there I was tempted to come clean about the whole thing, to let him know it was me, tell him I was still alive. It seemed cruel, stringing him along like that. He was such a decent chap, one of the most genuine fellows you could ever hope to meet. Instead I had to lie through my teeth.' He shook his head sadly. 'My God, Howie, how on earth did we ever end up like this?'
I'm dreadfully sick.
I've been lying in bed all day, too weak to write. The vomiting seems to have stopped now and the diarrhoea was never more than a thin watery trickle, but the stomach cramps remain. My poor stomach is like a balled fist rhythmically clenching and unclenching inside me. I suppose some of the moths must have been poisonous. It was stupid of me not to have considered this possibility before I ate them, but my mind is dull and clouded and no longer capable of rational thought.
I'll rest awhile before continuing.
I've just awoken from the most peculiar delirium-infused dream. It was 1943 again. The letter of condolence from Lt-Col Bigsby dropped onto the hallway mat. I picked it up and opened it, as I'd started doing with all Mother's post since her eyesight had begun to fail. I read the hyperbolic tribute and examined the accompanying dog-tag. Then I took a sheet of paper from the recesses of my wallet and unfolded it: it held a handwritten poem, 'Letters from the Line.' I took the poem and letter through to the drawing room where Mother sat huddled by the fire. 'Lulook,' I said (even in my dreams I can't lose my damned stammer). 'Mother, I think Hughie may still be alulive. Lulook at this poem he wrote. It just came with a luletter from his CO, it was found in his kit after he went missing. See what it spells out: DESERTED NOT DEAD. It cucan't be cucoincidence, can it? Don't you see what this means?'
How preposterous! Because what it would mean – what it would really mean – is that the other doesn't exist, that he never returned from the war, that he died a hero at El Alamein and that his entire post-war survival, like the acrostic poem apparently declaring his intention to desert, was my own lunatic invention. It would mean that I am the other. Je est un autre.
Such tricks the mind can play when it loses its tether.
I'm in a sorry state. My body disgusts me. The sheets are caked with vomit and excrement, their stench fills the room like a charnel house. Crane flies feast on my vile secretions, swarming about my head. I don't possess the strength to swipe them from my face, far less to drag my frame from this bed, I'm sure my legs would splinter and crack under the effort. These final scribbled words are as much as I can manage.
I wouldn't be capable of eating now even if food were at hand. My body is a dry shrivelled sack of desiccated organs. My throat has begun to constrict, sometimes I believe I can hear it already getting set to rattle. My tongue has grown huge and bloated and black, or so at least I imagine it, for it seems to fill my mouth. My jaws have locked tight as if anticipating the rigor that will soon be upon me. My eyelids are heavy and gummy as if weights are pressing upon them. Even the act of blinking demands a strenuous effort of will. Surely the end can't be far off now.
I drift in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I'm unsure if I'm asleep or awake. Sounds filter through to me from afar — a telephone ringing persistently downstairs, lonely and unanswered, like the stridulation of a cricket. Or perhaps it is a cricket after all and I'm mistaking it for the 'phone. And now a car crunching across the gravel drive below my window. Car door slamming. Hammering on the front door. A pause, then more hammering and someone shouting, calling up to me, a name – 'Mr Mauberley!' – my name. 'It's George Smiles here. The grocer. From the village. You haven't called in your order. I thought I'd better check you were OK. Mr Mauberley? Mr Mauberley?'
Robert Grossmith is a UK writer based near Norwich. He has a PhD on Vladimir Nabokov and has worked as a teacher, translator and lexicographer. His stories have appeared in the Spectator, London Magazine, The Time Out Book of London Short Stories, Best Short Stories (twice), The Best of Best Short Stories and The Penguin Book of First World War Stories. He has also published one print novel and two e-novels. Further information is available at www.goodreads.com
Curtis Poe is a photographer based in the Netherlands. View more of his work at Flickr .