It was in the summer of 1928 that we met him, stood beside a gigantic Grecian plant-pot sprouting palm leaves, on the back porch of my wife’s country estate. A tall, rake-thin, somewhat middle-aged man in an ill-fitted brown suit, with clashing white Panama hat, he looked like one of those amiable leeches who flit between wealthy sponsors. He was certainly a raconteur, amassing an audience like some Homeric poet. Women adored him, the way they adore a handsome man who also inspires their matronly instincts. If my marriage to Floss (whom I called Florence, given her floss-white complexion) was built on sex, I might have envied him, like those men who sometimes gave him violent glances. As it was, I regarded him with much the same pure fascination as the women. He reminded me of a chap I’d served with in the war: somewhat callous in his general attitudes to life, perhaps, but warm and charming to the individual…
He looked roughly the same age as I, but he didn’t look like he’d served. (Although, as I’d learned in a Norfolk military hospital, not all wounds are physical.) Floss and I caught sight of him almost simultaneously. We were stood by the French windows greeting some late arrivals, she with a sherry in hand and I a bitter lemon, having resolved to no longer treat my war-shattered nerves with alcohol. ‘Who is that, anyway?’ I asked, after we’d spent a few moments watching him regale his crowd. ‘I don’t recall, and I’m certain I know all the invited faces here… Maybe he’s one of those old money parasites… You know the ones I mean. Their families hit skid-row, they’ve never learned a trade or finished an education, so they end up living like well-dressed beggars.’ My wife doesn’t mean to be cruel, but for all her good breeding she never quite learned the English art of dishonesty.
By mutual agreement we introduced ourselves, bridging the centre of his group, to their slight consternation as he paused his latest story. His eyes met mine, and an odd sensation took a pew within me while I regarded those light brown orbs, the colour of soft spring mud in a sunbeam. He glanced at my wife, and introduced himself.
‘I fear I’m something of a gate-crasher, dear’ he told her, ‘I came down with the West London set, after the dog races.’ Floss nodded politely, having attained all the information she needed about our unexpected guest. The “West London set”, as he called them, were a group of gambling and drinking cronies whose patronage she’d inherited from her late father. ‘Well go on then, tell us the rest!’ said a woman to my left. He laughed, momentarily catching my eyes again before turning them on the speaker, and in that moment I grew as weak as a schoolgirl in the presence of a crush. I wallowed privately in shame and bemusement when the moment passed, unable to account for the weakening rapture.
‘Okay, okay, don’t twist an ankle, my girl, or I’ll be forced to expose my appalling lack of chivalry…’ Those words drew Floss, I and again the crowd into a world we scarcely remembered on leaving it. The details of his story, which the woman to my left was so eager to hear completed, remain obscure, though I associate them with sunlight, breezes, tall trees, stony paths and, above all, a sweet kind of happiness, to which only children are normally allowed admittance. It was the kind of story which wouldn’t be expected to entertain young people, even those who’ve seen war as we had, and its effects on us as our women had. Yet we all listened with religious reverence. That may explain how he wrangled an invitation to stay the night with Floss and I.
The party dispersed, and after dinner with those that remained, including our new guest, I stood in the drawing room by the French windows, gazing at the lawn in the darkness. I love early evening, because they’re besotted with a calm the day has no time for. The world, especially out here in the country, is infused with moonlight which draws even the hardest stone and bleakest blade of grass towards a silent, invisible awesomeness. My Heaven, if I earn it, will be in a perpetual state of early evening. ‘A loner, like me.’ The voice came from the doorway, and though I didn’t know anyone else was in this part of the house, I wasn’t surprised to hear it. I turned to greet our “old money parasite”, as Floss had insensitively surmised him to be. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘A loner, I said, like me. Not comfortable with crowds.’ He smiled, seeming coy as he approached. ‘Like you? You’ve spent the day holding court better than a judge!’ I replied. He laughed. ‘I tell good stories, I’ll allow myself that. It’s how I make my living, after all. You and your lovely wife pegged me for what I was before you’d even introduced yourselves, didn’t you? I’m not quite the species of leech you think I am, though… I live comfortably enough, financially. It’s the goodwill I seek, the friendship. I wonder if anyone’s a loner by choice, you know…’
Suddenly what he was seemed obvious, and I felt ashamed for not realising it before. He was one of those lonely sorts who never acclimated themselves to peacetime, but flitted between people and parties seeking a respite from the same memories which haunted me. I dulled them with alcohol, they with companionship. They’d made the better choice, I supposed. He stood by the couch, looking at his hand on its back, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know his name. I asked it, my voice soft and hesitating for reasons I didn’t know, when he raised his head.
Our eyes were locked in together, and for an instant that felt like an hour I was back where I never wanted to be again. I was in a foreign trench, where a comrade’s right foot had swollen to burst the stitching of its shoe. The image was utterly absurd, but as my stare travelled from his wasted, uncomprehending face to that horrible foot, I thought I saw a rat crawl out from between his toes, as though it had been birthed inside the shoe, nourished by the putrescence. The rat turned to look at me, regarded by it as an enemy, and the spell broke. I was back in the drawing room, eyes locked in with my guest’s.
‘What are you two plotting in here?’ came a new voice. Floss stood in the doorway, her expression an odd broth of cheer and nervousness. She turned the ceiling light on. ‘What is this, anyway, an Agatha Christie? Why all the darkness and long faces?’ Our guest buried his stare in the back of his hand. I smiled at her. The effort, though a matter of three or four seconds, was intense. It felt like raising a barn with ropes, alone. ‘Just reminiscing’ I replied (the ropes fraying). ‘Our friend here was in the war…’ He looked up at that, his eyes revealing a desert of pity and confusion. If Floss wasn’t there, I might have taken him into my arms.
Floss rolled her eyes in a good-natured fashion. ‘Oh, Henry’ she said to me, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t want to spend the night dredging up war stories in the dark.’ To both of us: ‘why don’t you come back to the bar? Helen’s going to bed soon, and she’s promised us a song before she does.’ Falling back into reality, our guest glanced at her, laughed and said, ‘so long as she promises to finish before the second chorus. I’ve learned from her brother that if she doesn’t, she’ll sing until she faints and cracks her head on the piano!’ Floss, delighted by the response, hooked her arm in his and with a jerk of her head commanded me to follow them.
That night, as Floss and I lay in bed, she asleep, I considered the vision my conversation with our visitor gave me. Though I’d been told by doctors after the war to expect such surges of memory from time to time, sometimes vast distance apart, sometimes in tortuous succession, I felt I’d never experienced anything quite like this vision before. I wasn’t just recalling a painful memory; in fact, I had the bizarre sensation that, in this strange and mortal plane we call reality, I’d never visited the trench I saw, or seen the man whose shoe birthed the rat, at least not in that exact confluence of perspective and circumstance. So what was I seeing, if I saw anything at all besides mad pictures cobbled together by an unsettled imagination?
I recalled from boyhood some peculiar lessons by my school’s chaplain, a zealous man who loved children and thus was deeply concerned with their souls. Though, as most civilised men of the modern age, he denied the existence of such quaint things as witches, he was singularly fascinated by a minor figure in Christian history, Elijah Crane, a Norfolk puritan who emigrated to the new world with the first of that breed who’d come to be known as Americans. Despite the austerity of his Biblical namesake, this holy man was by all accounts gentle and forgiving; he presided over the witch trials in his community (for he was its appointed patriarch) with a seemly fear and disquiet.
The chaplain would dedicate a week of his appointed lessons in the school year to this Elijah, and end it with this story: on the morning of the execution of a local spinster, convicted with reluctance by Elijah, the jailer opened her cell door and, within that bleak stone garret, afforded light only by a high, small, barred window, was nothing but the witch’s straw bed. The jailer alerted his masters, who in their turn alerted Elijah, and soon a group of the relevant men stood in the cell, vainly searching for a solution to the riddle.
Elijah, on his knees in a corner, suddenly drew back, allowing a rat to step into the light and be perceived by all. ‘How did that get in here?’ he demanded, because the only window was situated high above a steep quarry, without considerable footholds in the outside wall. None of the men knew, and almost in unison they caught the eyes of the creature, who gave them an impression of such Hellish, immortal disdain that three fled like children, while Elijah and two braver companions stood transfixed.
Overcome by Christian loathing for the foul and bedevilled, Elijah lunged forth and tried to squash the rat beneath his boot, but it fled through the open door before orders could be given to lock it, and from the hallway dropped down into a drain. Recovering himself, Elijah cursed his haste and superstition, then left to prepare an elegant excuse for the witch’s escape, saying instead that she died overnight. Only in a secret diary, discovered in a hidden drawer of his bureau some years after his death, did he admit the terrible superstition that had overcome him that morning in the cell, a superstition that would be derided by scholars from then until now. Even our chaplain was hesitant to claim a belief in it, though he always concluded the lesson with a quote from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
As I lay in my bed, a part of my mind travelled back to that classroom, where I sat listening to my peculiar chaplain. Instinctively, I reached out under the sheets with one hand and grasped my Floss’ knee. Her warm and feminine skin consoled me. But the consolation was brief because, not long after this intimacy, a crash from the direction of the stairwell startled Floss and I, her wrenched brutally from sleep. Exchanging fearful glances, we both crept out into the corridor and towards the noise’s source. Floss brought her hands to her face and gasped when we saw what it was: our guest, kindly having extinguished his candle during the moments of pre-collapse, had fallen down the stairs. He lay now in the oak-floored foyer, hot wax on his pyjama front and blood haloing his head.
We both rushed to his aid, careful not to slip and fall ourselves on the drops of wax dotting the stairs. ‘Call the doctor!’ I cried to Floss, but with what I now suppose was his last ounce of bodily strength he grabbed her arm before she could flee, saying: ‘I am so tired… Please… Don’t let me be imprisoned in this cell any longer… I should have left a long, long time ago…’
I grasped his hand. ‘What do you mean?’ He smiled, with a little humour and a lot of sadness. ‘I think you know, friend… I never should have dabbled in what I did not fully understand… Such magic is not always forgiven by even our most merciful God… But I so wanted to carry on, even if I had to be a leech… giving my soul to a familiar, and from a familiar to a fresh body, un-warped by the trenches… I spoke and I laughed and I entertained, leeching off of others’ hospitality and good spirits… But I am so tired now… I saw it too, Henry, just as you did… The shoe which bore the rat… Mine was the foot in that shoe…'