Authors: Martin Booth
Tags: #Fiction, #General
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Epub ISBN 9781409044673
61-63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA
A Random House Group Company
A BANTAM BOOK: 9780553825725
Previously published as
A Very Private Gentleman
by Thomas Dunne
Books, an imprint of St Martin’s Press in 2004
This Bantam edition published 2010
Copyright © Martin Booth 2004
Martin Booth has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
For Hugh and Karen
, novelist, critic, biographer, children’s author and social historian, died of a brain tumour in 2004. Shortly after diagnosis, he began to write his acclaimed memoir of his childhood in Hong Kong,
which he completed shortly before his death. Amongst his acclaimed novels were
, based on the life of a real down-and-out Briton who had survived the Nagasaki atomic raid,
The Industry of Souls
, which was short-listed for the Booker prize, and
A Very Private Gentleman
, which has now been filmed as
, starring George Clooney.
Also by Martin Booth
The Jade Pavilion
Dreaming of Samarkand
The Humble Disciple
The Iron Tree
Toys of Glass
Adrift in the Oceans of Mercy
The Industry of Souls
Islands of Silence
The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Carpet Sahib: A Life of Jim Corbett
The Dragon and the Pearl: A Hong Kong Notebook
Opium: A History
The Dragon Syndicates
A Magick Life: The Biography of Aleister Crowley
Cannabis: A History
Music on the Bamboo Radio
P. O. W
The Book of Cats
(with George Macbeth)
People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed . . . a knife . . . a purse . . . a dark lane.
THOMAS DE QUINCEY
igh in these mountains, the Apennines, the spinal cord of Italy, with its vertebræ of infant stone to which the tendons and the flesh of the Old World are attached, there is a small cave high up a precipice. It is very difficult to reach. The narrow path is littered with loose stones and, in the spring when the thaw comes, it is a running stream, an angled gutter two hundred metres long, slicing across the sheer surface of the rock face, collecting meltwater as the scar incised in the bark of a rubber tree channels the sap.
Some years, the local people claim, the water runs crimson with the sacred blood of the saint who lived in the cave as a hermit, dined on lichen or moss, consumed the pine nuts fallen from the firs overhanging the precipice high above, and drank only the stony water seeping through the roof of his abode.
I have been there. It is not an outing for the fainthearted or sufferers from vertigo. In parts, the path is no wider than a scaffolder’s plank and one is obliged to move upwards crab fashion, one’s back to the rock, facing down into the valley below, across to a purple haze of mountains jagged like the scales of a dragon’s back. This, they say, is a test of one’s faith, a trial to be taken on the route to salvation. They say you can see two hundred kilometres on a fine day.
There are scrubby pines growing at intervals along the path, the offspring of those far overhead. Each is festooned, as if for a religious festival, with clots of spiders’ webs hanging like the dense gossamer ghosts of Chinese lanterns. They say to touch one is to be burned, to be inculcated with original sin. The poison on the web is reported to restrict respiration, choke one to death as readily as if the spider was vulture-sized, its hairy legs locked about your throat. Lizards green as emeralds dart through the litter of dead needles, mountain succulents and wind-bent herbs. The reptiles have black beads for eyes and might be brooches of precious stones were it not for their lithe, impulsive movements.
The cave is about five metres deep and just high enough for an average man to stand. I do not have to bow my head in there. A ledge cut in the rock on one side served as the saint’s hard bed of contrition. At the cave mouth, there is usually to be found the remnant of a campfire. Lovers use the place as a rendezvous, a spectacular place to couple, perhaps to ask the saint’s blessing be called upon their fornications. At the rear of the cave the devout, or those greedy for heavenly intervention in the petty disasters of their lives, have erected an altar of concrete blocks clumsily smeared with plaster. Upon this crude sacrarium stands a dusty wooden cross and a candlestick made of cheap metal painted gold. Wax has marked the stone table of the altar: no one bothers to chip it off.
It is red wax. One day, someone will claim it to be the sacred flesh of the saint. Anything is possible where faith is concerned. The sinner searches forever after a sign to prove it is worth his while to recant. I should know: I have been a sinner, and a Catholic, too.
All men want to make their mark, know upon their deathbed the world has changed because of them, as a result of their actions or philosophies. They are arrogant enough to think, when they are dead, others will see their accomplishments and say, ‘Look. He made that – the man of vision, the man who got things done.’
Years ago, when I was living in an English village, I was surrounded by people trying in vain, tiny ways to stamp their signatures upon the course of time. Old Colonel Cedric – a major in the Pay Corps when he was discharged, without one day’s action in six years of war – paid for the fifth and six bells in a mediocre peal. A local estate agent, well off from the proceeds of selling the village over and over, planted an avenue of beeches from the lane up to his renovated mansion, a one-time derelict tithe barn; caustic rain, village youths and a main sewer, all in their own way, put paid to the symmetry with which he hoped the fields of history would be bisected and his memory preserved. The local bus driver was the one who topped them all: Brian of the beer gut and greasy hair slicked forward to camouflage a balding pate. Brian was simultaneously a district councillor, Parish Council chairman, churchwarden, vice-chairman of the Village Hall Development Committee and co-president of the Village Association of Change-Ringers. The old colonel was the other co-president. It stood to reason.
I shall not name the village. It would be unwise. I am not silent from a fear of litigation, you understand. Simply from the concern of wanting to retain my privacy. And my past. Privacy – which some might call secrecy – is of immense value to me.
One could not be private in a village. No matter how one kept to oneself, there were always those who pried, nosed, thrust sticks under my stone, flipped it over to see what lay beneath. These were the people who could not make the tiniest mark on history, could not affect their world – the village, the parish – no matter how they tried. The best they could hope for was to share vicariously in others’ petty achievements. Their ambition was to be able to say, ‘Him? I knew him when he bought The Glebe,’ or ‘Her? I was with her when it happened,’ or ‘I saw the car skid, you know. There’s still a hole in the hedge: a nasty corner: someone should do something about it.’ Yet they never did and if I were a betting man, prone to taking a gamble, I should wager tyres still squeal on the bend, doors dent of a frosty morning.
In those days, I was a jobbing silversmith, a pots-and-pans man, not a maker of rings and mounter of diamonds. I repaired teapots, soldered salvers, straightened spoons, polished or copied church plate. I did the rounds of the antique shops and the bazaars put on to snare the tourists. It was not a skilled job and I was not a skilled man. I had no training other than a basic tuition in metalwork picked up by chance in the workshops of my boarding school.
Occasionally, I fenced stolen property. The villagers had no idea of this nefarious activity, and the local bobby was a dullard bent more on snaring poachers of pheasants and scrumpers of apples than apprehending criminals. Such activity put him in the good books of the colonel’s son, an ardent hunter and shooter who owned orchards under licence to the cider makers, raised the pheasants for his own guns or those of his cronies. The constable’s place in local history was thus assured: the colonel was the repository of local records, being the landowner and, as he thought, the squire. For evermore, the constable would be remembered in anecdotes of petty arrests, for he served his masters well.
It was the fencing which gave me a notion to move away, diversify into other lines of business. The criminality added a certain spice to an otherwise stultifying existence in an utterly boring location. It was not for the money I took to it, I can assure you. I made little profit melting down or repolishing the minor silver from insignificant country-house robberies and the break-ins at provincial antique shops. I did it to fight the mundane. It gave me contacts, too, in the ethereal twilit world of the lawbreaker, the milieu I have inhabited ever since.
Yet now I am back on a one-track existence, undiversified, all my eggs in one basket; but they are golden eggs.
I am getting old and have made my marks on history. Vicariously, perhaps. Secretively, certainly. Those who want to snuffle in the parish records of that village will discover who hung those two bells or who perhaps, by now, has put a ‘Slow’ sign at the icy corner. Few know what my contributions to history have been, and no one shall, save the reader of these words. And that is good enough.
Father Benedetto drinks brandy. He likes cognac, prefers armagnac, yet is not too fussy. As a priest, he can ill afford to be: his small private income is subject to the vagaries of the stock market. Religious observance and church attendance are declining in Italy, less money falling in the offertory. Only old crones in black shawls smelling of mothballs attend his services, and old men in berets and musty jackets. The urchins in the streets catcall
after him as he passes in his soutane on his way to Mass.
Today, as is customary for him, he is dressed in his commonplace uniform, the pastoral apparel of a Roman Catholic priest: a black suit of unstylish, outmoded tailoring with a few of his short white hairs in evidence on his shoulders, a black silk stock and a deep Roman collar wearing at the edge. His priestly uniform has looked faintly shabby and old-fashioned since the moment it left the tailor’s bench, the last thread cut like an ecclesiastical umbilical cord tying it to the secular bolt of cloth. His socks and shoes are black, the latter polished by his soutane on his walk home from Mass.