“Take me back where I wanna be-e-e, in Cottston lav-a-TOR-ee!”
For Buck it had been an ideal birthday so far. 1964! Twelve years old! Curry for lunch – by far the best meal of the month. The gristly mince, stuck between his teeth, still released the liberal flavours. The White Witch had no doubt emptied every herb and spice tin into her famous cauldron. And now he pushed the splintered door back on the toilet cubicle and found that the wooden seat was dry, as he’d hoped it would be. He was in no great hurry. Following a reported sniffle and sore throat earlier in the week, his status was ALLOWED OUT/OFF GAMES. This explained why he was not at this moment scrabbling to get his muddy football boots tied up under the impatient eye and readied slipper threat of Duke Wayne. Instead he was sitting in comfort, his shorts and pants held up by wellington boots well clear of the drying milky puddles of disinfectant so generously sloshed about by Mafia Jo every morning. His body had timed its functions well. There was nothing worse than the stinging kiss of wet toilet seat on unprotected upper haunches in the usual rush after breakfast.
Outside he heard Duke Wayne’s whistle and the uncertain clatter of metal studs on flagstones as his classmates were urged towards the far field. Buck nodded, satisfied that by now Brown – his fellow ALLOWED OUT/OFF GAMES bod would have been handed the broad cowpat spade and ordered to perform the disgusting task of clearing the pitch that doubled as pasture. It was an unfair world. Still it was another stroke of luck for Buck! He stretched out for the toilet paper.
As he emerged from the Jakes, he met the under-matron, Miss Grantley and saw that she was pleasingly out of uniform and into bust bursting blouse, bouncing pearls and cardigan on this warm spring day.
“Why aren’t you wearing your scarf Buck?”
“Mrs Delaheuze told me to give my chest a good airing today.”
Buck was used to having his lies accepted. He was after all a special boy. Besides Miss Grantley was in too much of a hurry to challenge the Headmaster’s wife and so Buck was not dispatched to try and find a scarf he had lost two weeks before. Buck guessed that Miss Grantley was planning to spend her spare hours in the young masters’ cottage. It was the assumption of every boy that the pretty young woman must be in love – either with Gugs Gregory or the Captain – either man too soppy or too headstrong respectively to be allowed to take charge of any of the Saturday afternoon games and therefore both languishing down the lane beyond the barn.
Miss Grantley increased her pace as she neared the gateway at the end of school yard and Buck deliberately altered his course to scramble up the overgrown slope by the perimeter wall. He wanted to be sure of the direction she was taking.
From his vantage point, he peered over the crenulated ancient wall and watched her. He had been right. She had turned left and was negotiating the puddles with a determined stride – at one point leaping from one gravel island to another.
In a good mood! Hearty and definitely busty! Sabrina and the other pinup film stars could eat socks! Not a patch on Miss Grantley with her breasts held mutinously captive within her tight blouse, ready to….
Buck cursed. How could anyone have approached so quietly? He turned, pushing against the bushes.
“Get down in a hurry! Fasty Pasty!
Recognising the voice, Buck slid down the bank to face his hook nosed form teacher, who stood by the sand-pit holding a small grip in one hand.
“It’s you Buck!” Spassov sighed. “And why aren’t you in football shorts?”
But Spassov knew the answer. He waved the rest of Buck’s words into the breeze with his stick. “Wangled a sickie again: you’re a sly one, a regular Pinocchio without the benefit to society of a tell-tale nose – eh?” Spassov spoke quickly with clipped syllables designed to impress any parent too ready to make assumptions about his command of English. “Why aren’t you with Mr Wayne as you should be? Why are you lurking in this dubious corner of the playground?”
“I thought I saw a butterfly, sir.”
“Pearls without price! No more Buck! You’ll suffocate me with your quick inventions. No I suspect you have been spying, feeding your sorry imagination at Miss Grantley’s expense. Yes I saw her too. Now Buck. Accompany me!”
Buck allowed himself to be led back across the schoolyard towards the green haze of the conker tree that shaded some new brick classrooms. He followed Spassov round the corner and onto the crunching gravel of the main drive and to the right, the school’s elegant Georgian frontage that had so impressed his grandparents the year before. The drive led past the hall and the cricket pitch towards a lodge at the main gate. A line of Poplar trees marked its progress and iron railings separated the mown verge from a pasture and the dark line of Cottston Wood.
They turned away to the left however, and shortly passed through a metal kissing gate and down a muddy path between banked up brambles, over which Buck could already hear Duke’s high pitched remonstrations.
The brambles levelled down to a fence and five barred wooden gate letting on to the senior playing fields, the nearest of which was occupied by Duke Wayne.
Spassov hailed his colleague in a voice that needed no megaphone. “Delivering a laggard, Mr Wayne, with all his hypochondriac neuroses! If I were you I’d keep him manacled to the goal post.”
Duke had the boys in a steaming line as he ordered teams and positions. His high pitched voice was squeaking his usual threats to known slackers. There was no break in the speech, just a wave of the hand to acknowledge his colleagues intervention. Buck thought he detected an antipathy, a resentment towards a foreigner’s unreasonable command of the English language.
Spassov shrugged. “Over the gate you go then Buck. I presume your convalescence does not hinder your skill in climbing, still less your tendency towards mendacity. I wish you a pleasant afternoon.”
Buck sighed. Another word to look up in the dictionary when he got back to the hush of civilization. He climbed the gate easily and joined Brown on the touchline.
The two boys greeted each other. Brown let the glistening spade fall with a thump on the ground.
“So disgusting to have to share the games pitch with members of your family!” Buck’s comment provoked a friendly shoulder barge.
As players took up allotted positions, Duke strode towards them. “Buck! I might have known it! What’s the excuse this time? Give me one good reason why…”
“I was stuck to the seat, sir.” Buck pressed home his advantage.
Duke waved his hand in the air as if trying to dispel a bad odour. “Enough!” he shrieked. “Buck, you really are the most extraordinary boy, no sense of propriety. I….I…” His voice subsided but as he turned back towards the players, his muttering was still audible. “Bad influence… Should never have been allowed in.”
Buck smiled at Brown and shrugged.
Duke blew the whistle and the game began. Throughout the first fifteen minutes, he occupied the centre circle as if the white ring was an impassable line of fire. But his god-like vision enabled him to make squawky decisions on incidents at the furthest corners. Dissent was met an angry squeak as the protestor’s name was entered into a black book to join the growing list of slackers doomed to summary justice in the changing rooms later.
The two spectators stood, hands in pockets, stamping their boots on the soft earth. Hines scored a goal. Tucker the goalkeeper had skipped out of the way and so his name was entered in the slackers’ column.
“Anyone slack gets a whack!”
“Abysmally aborted Aborigine!” Buck began.
“Belligerently bellied Bastard!” Brown countered.
Their stately progress through the alphabet had just reached lavishly lubricated lizard, when Buck’s sensitive ear detected a click of the gate and they turned to see their Headmaster, Mr Delaheuze striding towards them, shooting stick in one hand and bird spotters’ book in the other.
“What ho!” He waved the shooting stick in Duke’s direction. “At ease boys!” This was meant for Buck and Brown who had both become fidgety at his approach – Buck examining his fingernails and Brown rubbed the instep of his wellington boots on an available tussock.
“Exciting soccer?” He drove his shooting stick into the ground, opened it out and perched his cavalry twill trousered bottom on the seat. His binoculars bounced on his chest.
“It’s OK, sir,” said Brown.
“A bit like Cotta attacking the ditches, sir!” Buck sighed. “A lot of effort without much result.” The memory of his first year at Cottston having to write out Cotta oppugnat fossas still rankled.
Delaheuze cast him a suspicious look. “It doesn’t pay to be too clever, Buck. I remember the Irish members in the Commons – smart Alecks to a man!”
The game became even more ragged as Duke Wayne, conscious of his headmaster’s watchful eye, blew his whistle more frequently. His already shrill voice found a new register.
“Is it true that dogs and bats can make sounds so high that we can’t hear them sir?”
Delaheuze paused before answering. “I do believe that is the case Buck, but I should warn you that if this sudden search for audio-biological knowledge is but a preface to some cheap remark about Mr Wayne’s vocal capacities, be sure that the result will lead to such lines across your bottom as to make Cotta’s ditches pale into insignificance.
This demonstration of loquacity produced a long silence that could only be broken at long last by the appearance of Mr Wayne, close to the touchline. The necessity of having to follow the game at a closer range had now so deprived this master of breath that he could at first only communicate through signs and gasps that the players readily interpreted according to their own interests. Richards took his time in retrieving the ball for a throw in.
Delaheuze’s nose wrinkled as if it detected a questionable smell. He nodded sharply to his puffing employee and rose, closing his stick with a snap.
“Very good, Mr Wayne! Very good!” His aristocratic drawl drew a much clearer demarcation than the fading white lines at their feet. He waved his stick in the direction of Buck and Brown. “These boys – allowed out: off games – they should be exercising, don’t you think? –Not standing on one spot.”
Mr Wayne scowled at the invalids . “What would you suggest, Headmaster?” He signed to Richards to delay the throw in.
“A walk, of course! A healthy walk in the grounds! Report back to you before tea, lungs full of fresh Spring air!”
Mr Wayne whose lungs had been painfully overstretched, nodded his hasty agreement.
“So be it – Buck, Brown! Be off with you!” Delaheuze waved in the direction of the lane.
Buck and Brown needed no second invitation, only pausing to open the gate for Mr Delaheuze and to ensure that they took the opposite direction to the Beak – as he was half affectionately known.
Down the lane – mendaciously malicious maniac; across the style – enervatingly nonsensical nincompoop.
“You can’t have enervatingly. It’s spelt with an e.”
“It’s an n a nobvious n!”
“You noxious nonentity!”
They rolled down the hill towards the dark pond; then righting themselves in time, they skirted the cow’s muddy entrance hall and whacked a path through the nettles towards the felled tree trunk from where they could sit and view the black water.
“Ideal spot for a murder, Watson!”
“I regretfully agree, Holmes.”
Buck, the special boy had found a soulmate in weak chested Brown. The two of them spent their free time in making up Agatha Christie type murder mysteries.
“Look over there at the broken brambles. That’s where the murderer dragged his victim. No-one to hear and distinguish her screams from those of Duke Wayne in yonder field! The murderer counted on it.”
“Who was the victim Holmes?”
“Why pretty Miss Grantley of course!”
“Jealousy!” Buck swung himself off the log. “Let’s examine the clues!”
They slid down to catch themselves on the old willow tree at the pond’s brink, then with the black mud sucking at their wellington boots, they made their way towards a grassy patch of harder ground, backed by blackberry bushes.
“Look!” Brown bent forward as he saw a glint of red. “A shoe!” He stood back, alarmed by the sudden intrusion of reality on their game.
Undeterred, Buck used a stick to pick up the high heeled sandal. “Worn by a woman ill prepared for the place and time of year.” He looked up. “Red Watson! – a woman wearing red fashion shoes – a flighty filly – but what was she doing so close to the pond and why did she leave her shoe here?”
Brown pointed at the broken strap. “Elementary my dear Holmes!” he ventured.
“That’s my word! Only I am allowed to say elementary.” Buck peered into the instep. “The shoe’s expensive, Watson, and could be easily repaired. Purchased in Paris I shouldn’t wonder.” He peered at the unfamiliar lettering. “Or somewhere even further afield,” he murmured to himself. “But we can deduce it’s not Miss Grantley’s. She buys her shoes at Dolcis. Anyway they’re too big. I have observed Miss Grantley’s feet. They are petite.”
“So why did the woman leave her expensive shoe here?”
Buck shrugged. “Surprised, panicked, on the run?” He looked around him. “There’s wool on those brambles. Some kind of mohair. Hold back!” He held up a warning arm. “Don’t spoil the crime scene.” He bit his lower lip. “My God Watson – this is real!” He pointed to a path beaten through the brambles. “Follow me – but carefully. She must have thrashed her way up here, or been dragged. Look at the broken branches and wool. There’s a bare footprint here. Don’t step on it. There’s more wool on the fence here.
They stood looking over at the lane that formed the southward bounds of the school and linked Cottston village with the main road to Salisbury. On the verge they could make out a tyre track and a man’s footprint.
“A man, of course!” Buck turned back excitedly to peer down the muddy track towards the grass where they had found the shoe. Yes here and there amid their own boot prints were clear marks made by a male shoe.
“Probably just a courting couple.” Brown’s snigger was designed to reflect more knowledge than he really possessed.
Buck who knew all about the habits of courting couples thought he’d seen some corroborating evidence in the brambles. He picked up a stick and pushed back the branch. Sure enough there was a discarded rubber. He wrinkled his nose.
“What is it?” Brown asked.
“Don’t you know?”
“Is it something dirty?”
“Well you were right Watson. A courting couple doing what courting couples do. That’s the evidence – a rubber Johnny. “
“The man sticks it on his willy so the woman doesn’t get a baby.”
“Oh yes, I know.” Brown moved away, confused by his friend’s knowledge.
“Still,” Buck mused aloud for Brown’s benefit. It all looks to have been pretty rough – and she left quite an expensive shoe behind.” He lifted some branches and pushed the shoe out of sight. “I shall write it up in letter writing period.”
Mitko Spassov made his way back to the drive, past the front of the house and reached the gate at the end of the schoolyard where he had encountered Buck. In front of him the rutted track leading to the young masters’ cottage spelt desolation for the soul in a code of linked puddles – another wasted weekend in his waning life.
A long time ago – when he had been only a couple of years older than Buck he had ridden a pony down a similar track and looked at brown reflections of similar clouds in the puddles of a recent rain storm. But when he raised his eyes he would have seen not this stultifyingly close English grouping of barn and hedge and trees, but the rolling spring green of his grandfather’s pastures, broken by the nodding strips of sunflower plantations, rising to hills and beyond them the mighty mountains. His grandfather’s lands had promised seemingly limitless possibilities to a boy about to take his place at the prestigious American College alongside his country’s young elite.
1934 – all had seemed right in the world. In his Sofia office, his father had shaken his head at politics. A dangerous game for fools, my boy. His father, engineer and industrialist, had stuck to what and whom he knew best -sufficient knowledge for him to prosper and eight years later for others to justify his being shot like a mad dog.
1938 – his father had waved away thoughts of conflict. We live in an age of good sense, my boy – nothing that men of business can’t sort out. And Mitko had packed his trunk for Cambridge University in England, the country his father admired even more than Germany.
Peace in our time – and where had that catastrophic miscalculation left Mitko Spassov? – shot out of barrel of a mighty cannon; first squeezed and skinned then crawling to his suspicious hosts, pleading that despite his country’s orientation he was not an enemy agent, that he should be allowed to finish his studies and not be dispatched to a camp in the Isle of Man.
Still in that buttock clenching time, he had learnt to survive in the borderless world of fear and tasted the lemon of doomed love. And all that had led him where? Fifteen years of never ending routine as Latin master in a boys’ preparatory school.
Dic, Duc, Fer, Fac or you get a whack. He frowned at the paltriness of it all – the irregular imperatives of his circumscribed life. He looked at his watch. He had five minutes to catch the bus. He tried to rouse his waning sense of urgency. One weekend in every four – and he’d already wasted an hour of the afternoon.
Life must go on. There was the bookshop and a haircut then he’d wait for Mildred. Her husband was away – and so she could arrive in her mini. He’d meet her outside the restaurant, they’d eat pasta and then they’d repair to the usual room he’d booked at the usual hotel – The Railway Arms.
They’d undress in the dark. She was shy of revealing her operation scar. While he plodded down the corridor for one last piss, she’d slip between the hospital-crisp sheets to remove her underclothes.
Something for the weekend Sir? – You bet!
He reached the end of the lane safely without stepping in a continental size puddle or alerting the occupants of the young masters’ cottage. He could hear guitar chords and a nasal warbling that could only come from the throat of Joss Gregory, trying to impress that new under-matron.
He turned the corner onto the metalled road and cursed quietly in Bulgarian. “Your old mother!” He didn’t use his native language much these days – only for swearing, but more frequently in dreams. But his irritation was understandable. His Saturday afternoon bus ride, usually spent in lordly indifference to the few locals travelling at this time was going to be threatened by young gangly Sebastian Foulkes.
Foulkes smoked. He was even now lighting up a woodbine. And Foulkes knew Spassov smoked. There’d be nothing for it but to share a seat on the top deck.
It was no consolation that Foulkes did not appear to welcome the coincidence. He nodded moodily at his older colleague – as if he too grudged the effort of necessary interaction.
Spassov could not remember having had any meaningful conversation with the nineteen year old, beyond a curt handshake at their introduction at the beginning of the term. Foulkes was filling in time before going up to Oxford, teaching some maths, stepping in to mind the classes of colleagues struck down by winter illnesses. Spassov had heard that Foulkes’ mother was a close chum of Eleanor Delaheuze. They’d been in neighbouring beds at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
From overheard grumblings, Spassov had gathered that Foulkes was not liked by the boys. He was too casual and never failed to disguise the impression that he found the teaching of elementary maths quite tiresome.
Foulkes inhaled deep, arched his back against the bus stop post so that his sports jacket hung limp off his emaciated body. “Another week crossed off,” he murmured. “Seven weeks to Easter and then another ten weeks to serve in this mini Gormenghast.”
Spassov stared down the road, willing the bus to appear. He had only a dim idea of what Foulkes meant by mini Gormenghast. He was sure it was one of the books Buck had read and tried to talk to him about – some story about grotesque people stuck in a world ruled by ritual. Yes – of course!
“How long have you been here, Mr Spassov?”
Spassov jerked and as he grimaced, Foulkes read his thoughts. “Too long?” He straightened his body, shook his red curly head. “How did you get trapped? You’re not an ex monk like Wayne are you? Not with a name like that! Where are you from?”
At last the bus! Spassov rolled his head to indicate the ambiguity of his origins and pointed. Foulkes shrugged and pulled out a dog eared paperback from his pocket. On the Road – if the crusty bastard wasn’t going to talk to him, he’d sit on the top of the bus and wish Wiltshire into Colorado.
So once on the top floor, he sat across the double seat and spread out his long legs. Spassov was relieved to see further communication was barred and so sat several rows back.
Buck sat in the boot room, struggling with his wellies, amid a deep smell of socks, earth mould and rubber. One by one he placed them on the numbered boot pegs and then retrieved his house sandals from his locker. The clatter of football boots outside told him that they had timed their return well – to bagz the table tennis table before the other boys got out of the showers and changing rooms.
Just one duty to perform – he darted out in still unbuckled sandals to report his safe return to Duke Wayne. Brown was already stationed by the back door. Wayne arrived at the tail of the puffing footballers to shoo them down the cold stone tunnel that led to the subterranean changing rooms.
“Ah! You two! Got back from your healthy walk in one piece, I see. No attacks from mystery hounds or vampire bats Buck? Very well. Run along!” And satisfied with his self created image of the boys’ best friend, Wayne waddled off down the long corridor, preparing to visit a slipper on anyone mucking about in the showers.
“Oleaginously orificed owl!” Buck muttered.
“What’s an orifice?” Brown asked as he got his five star ball and two bats out of his playroom locker.
“It’s a hole in your body – you know like your bum hole.”
“Don’t be so crude!” Brown handed Buck a bat and they began to play.
Brown delivered one of his deceptive short services that lost so much momentum that Buck had to lean forward in a rushed response that missed the table’s opposite edge by a foot. Brown caught the ball and served again. “My mum wrote me a letter after last Visiting Sunday saying that she thought you could be a disturbing influence.”
Buck attempted a slam and the ball shot upwards to stick between the water pipes ringing the ceiling. He needed a chair to retrieve it.
“She said you were precocious.”
“That’s OK.” Buck threw the ball back to Brown.
“And over sophisticated.”
All this because Buck had revealed an acute understanding of the Christine Keeler scandal over teacakes in the Grand Hotel, Salisbury. “I bet your mum had a long talk with the beak about me when we all got back. I saw the car still parked in the drive long after we’d come out of evening prayers.” It was his turn to serve. He tried his killer spin special.
Brown returned it and then flicked Buck’s response to the opposite corner of the table. Buck had to crawl under the lockers to retrieve the ball. Brown twirled his bat. “ Yes, but she said that you couldn’t be blamed for how you’d bee…” Brown’s voice tailed off.
“How I’d been brought up by deliciously decadent and now decidedly dead parents. Yeah! Yeah! Never mind the tough cheddar!”
Brown flapped his bat and obligingly lost the next three points.
“So the upshot of all this is…?” Buck executed a perfect back hand slam.
“Nothing! She can’t dictate who I’m friends with.”
“Elementary my dear Watson.
And Big Moynaghan and Tucker burst into the playroom to realise that no matter how quickly they had changed and showered, the table tennis table was occupied.
Buck was untouchable and besides, it was his birthday.
Foulkes waved perfunctorily at the terminus and set off in a shambling run towards the train station where he would catch the first available train to London. A kind of conversation had taken place on the top deck of the bus when Foulkes’ lighter had failed and he’d been forced to beg Spassov for a match. Foulkes had been then stimulated to share a thought from his book. “You’re a hitchhiker on life’s highway but are you going somewhere or are you just going? It’s that simple and that profound.”
Spassov stood watching him till he’d disappeared round the corner. He went first to deposit his bag at the Railway Hotel and then he walked through the market square towards the Cathedral gate and the oak beamed second hand bookshop he had grown to love.
Man, these yanks can really write! Spassov smiled as he entered the narrow medieval street as though it were a metaphor for the path laid by his literature and history teachers – American strict classicists who shared TS Eliot’s distaste for the barbaric yawp of demotic literature – the men in suits, the women in severely cut dresses and tight hair.
In the empty bookshop he picked up a leather-bound copy of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. For fifteen years he had made his pupils learn the lines:
And thus spake brave Horatius, the captain of the gate
For every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late
And how can man die better than by facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his father and the temples of his Gods
And always, as now, when he read those lines and looked at the illustration of brave Horatius and his two companions, he felt a cold ripple down his back – as though he could see the ashes of his father blow across the glade where he had been shot as an enemy of the people. He slammed the book shut.
He turned and found dapper Mr Levy by his side. The bookseller wore an old velvet jacket whose drabness had been compensated by a bright yellow silk handkerchief poking from the top pocket.
“Good afternoon, Mr Spassov.”
Spassov looked at his watch. It was twenty to four – still time for his monthly hair cut.
“So sorry for the intrusion.” Levy looked apologetically at the volume of Macaulay that had remained unsold for years and so was always available to Mr Spassov on the occasional Saturday afternoon. “I believe from your name that you may have some understanding of Slavonic languages?”
Spassov had given his name to the bookseller a few years earlier only to confirm an order of some second hand Latin grammars, so he was startled by this sudden personal approach and evidence of memory.
“I was born in Bulgaria,” he admitted guardedly.
“Aha!” Mr Levy’s feet drummed a jig of delight. Bulgarian! I wonder if you could look at this.” He beckoned Spassov over toward the sparsely populated modern foreign language shelves.
Spassov followed, thinking again how unlike a Bulgarian it was to be so reticent with a man who he nodded to every four weeks – even shared short professional conversations with him.
Levy pulled up some steps. “A young woman – very attractive I might say; but very poor English.” He mounted the steps and reached up to a small locked glass fronted cabinet perched on the top shelf. Sighing with effort he opened the door to pull out a thin black leather-bound book. “She left this with me for valuation. She said it was unique. She even prevailed on me to advance her a five pound note. She seemed troubled.” He passed Spassov the book and descended. “I believe it is in Bulgarian – she said it had been printed in Sofia, but she would tell me nothing about the content” He scraped and bumped the steps back into the corner. “I had to explain to her – I don’t operate like a pawnbroker. I think she intended to come back, to retrieve it, to return me the five pound note. Something about her…Kept looking over her shoulder as if…” Levy stopped, realising that his customer’s silence arose from shock.
Spassov’s hands trembled as he leafed through the book. He could find no mention of a publisher on the title page, nor a date of publication, though the book looked old and the typeface was in old Cyrillic.
The subject was evident from the illustration on the title page. A horned goat legged devil leered at him.
Looking over his shoulder, Levy murmured that the book could be sold for its illustrations alone. He asked for a translation of the title.
“The Devil’s Notebook.” Spassov was turning the pages.
“Something like Ambrose Bierce?”
“Something infinitely darker.” Spassov looked around the shop, checking that there were no customers.
“Is the author’s name known to you?
Spassov shrugged and turned back to the title page. Voktim. He shook his head. It’s a pseudonym – someone wanting to see his work in print but remain anonymous. Spassov looked again at the illustrations. They were crude woodcut versions of church murals he had seen when his father took him to Rila monastery as a boy. But they retained much of the power of the originals. He wondered if the writer had produced them himself.
In spite of the typeface, the text had a surprisingly modern tone. Through its apocalyptic language, Spassov could detect references to twentieth century events. Its laconic cynicism was entirely contemporary. Torture and murder were repeated themes.
The title page had a dedication: To all stupid comrades alive or dead. This is the testament of Mephistopheles himself.
Spassov closed the book. “This is horrible!”
“No value then?”
“Oh I didn’t say that!” Spassov turned and stared at Levy trying to take his measure. “This book belongs in a safe place until your young lady returns – which I pray she does for all our sakes.”
Levy took a step back. “You’re alarming me!” He shook his shoulders and attempted a smile. “You’re not suggesting some diabolic visitation. I’m not sure my insurance covers…”
Spassov bit his lip. He had overreacted. “There is nothing supernatural about this. I’m sorry.” He realised he did not know Levy at all. “I just think you should keep it safe and certainly not on open display. And please, if your girl does not return, contact me. I can help you in identifying its author and finding a buyer.”
Levy stood staring at him, now grasping the book as if he were afraid Spassov might steal it. Then, as if realising the absurdity of his pose, he relaxed and laughed. “Of course, Mr Spassov. You’ll be the first person I’ll contact. We don’t get rare Slavonic books too often. And I’ll do as you say. I lose so much stock to petty thieves and if there is any value to this…”
“Believe me – it’s very rare!” Spassov shook his head to emphasise this point. “Keep it close to you!”
Levy let out a high pitched whinny as if in protest at Spassov’s tone – then suddenly recollecting something he put his head to one side. “I did mention your name to the young lady. I told her you were a customer who probably understood Slavonic languages. I said I knew you have lived here some time and gave her directions to the school. She pretended not to be interested but I did sense some excitement – whether from hope or fear I couldn’t tell.”
Spassov looked around to make sure that there was still no-one within earshot. “People from Eastern Europe have learnt to be very guarded – especially when they hear of compatriots close by.”
“This seems very cloak and dagger.” Levy sought denial and, when he did not get it, seemed oddly buoyed up as if all his bookselling life he had been waiting for such a moment. I will put this somewhere safe.” He bustled off towards his office at the back of the shop.
Spassov looked at his watch. It was time for his haircut and then his walk to the Italian restaurant to meet Mildred. He called out a farewell in the direction of the back office and left the shop. He walked briskly back to the High street, past David Greigs and found his way to the barbers in Fisherton Street.
The back basement of the school main house, with its playroom and subterranean tunnel to the showers and changing rooms, had a back door that led out onto a small paved yard, where the boys would be assembled for their Sunday walks to morning mass and afternoon benediction at the local village church. To the right of the door, beyond the boot-room was the high brick arch leading to the larger playground. Into this was set the school jakes, where Buck had enjoyed a satisfactory and undisturbed birthday crap. Along the left side of the playground ran a line of classrooms and these supported a first floor of connecting dormitory rooms each containing between seven and ten beds, where the senior boys slept.
This was normally Spassov’s domain. From his bedroom at the archway end he would superintend the boys’ retirement routines, from their undressing; then to their cold dash in dressing gown and slippers back through the archway to the cellars to wash and brush their teeth; thentheir dash back stopping at the dripping jakes for a final pee; then to their kneeling at their bedsides to recite their night-time prayers. Finally before lights out and compulsory silence, he would read to them – his strong voice echoing down from the central dormitory towards the rooms at each end.
But every fourth Saturday, Duke Wayne would be in charge of the boys’ bed-time. He would pace the dormitories from end to end, eager to comment on the neatness of folded clothes, the length of toenails and spend four minutes attending to Ryan’s verruca. On these Saturdays in the end dormitory, Buck was anxious to avoid Wayne’s attention and so slipped into bed as soon as the squeakily led prayers had come to an end.
He had arranged his dressing gown in neat folds to cover his clothes. Vest shirt and sweater had been peeled off in one go; pants and socks were placed strategically within his shorts so that complete dressing could take in barely more than two moves.
But tonight Wayne lifted the dressing gown and at once his moonlike face wrinkled in distaste. “Out of bed, you slattern and get these clothes separated and properly folded.” He folded his arms. “And you can have a minus point for tidiness!”
“But sir!” Buck swung out of bed. “In a fire sir…”
“Not another word! You’ve been in my bad books all day!”
“Sir!” Brown now joined the protest in an urgent whisper. “You know how his parents died! And it is his birthday, sir.”
“Hmm!” The self proclaimed friend to all boys had been put on the spot. “Oh very well then – I’ll withdraw the minus mark but get these clothes tidied up!” He turned suddenly as a boy attempted to get past him. “Where do you think you’re going Snodgrass?”
“To the lavatory sir!”
Wayne puffed his cheeks. “Don’t call it a lavatory – call it a loo. Oh very well! I suppose you can use mine.” And he waved Snodgrass on to the door ehind Bucks bed. This led to a staircase down to a bathroom and Wayne’s own bedroom that lay on the ground floor at the end of the classroom block.
To Buck’s relief Wayne now took up position in the central dormitory two rooms away and proceeded to read them a Father Brown story. Buck knew it and he rolled over to face the wall. Father Brown was as anaemic as Wayne’s reedy expressionless voice. Nothing compared to the great Sherlock or even the idiosyncratic Poirot. Sherlock was a genius despite his flaws. Father Brown fitted too well into Wayne’s smug world.
He closed his eyes. The Case of the red shoe Chapter One: “Gosh I’m glad you’re helping us on this case, Buck!” Inspector Lestrade of the murder squad wiped his brow, anxious again to seek the help of this remarkable schoolboy detective. “A dead woman’s shoe – but we know nothing about her.” “On the contrary my dear Lestrade, we know so much. Observe the heel of the shoe – well worn on the left. The woman had a slight limp – chronic: I suspect some birth defect. The shoe has a foreign label. The writing….THE WRITING!”
Buck had seen that writing before. Of course – the one time being a special boy had not saved him. Bent over to get a whack of the slipper – nose close to the bottom book shelf in Spassov’s room. Talking after lights out had earned the whack and he and Brown and Moynahan had been unlucky that night and so were lined up along the book filled wall. Spassov never told anyone to bend over. His favoured phrase was assume the position. Then he’d keep you waiting, hands clasping your calves, blood pumping into your head, while he’d jaw on about the importance of undisturbed sleep.
Ever curious Buck had scanned that bottom shelf. It was where his parents used to keep their more lurid paperbacks. And yes! His body now straightened in bed. The letters on the book spines had been the same as those on the shoe.
Bulgarian! That was what Spassov was! “Yes Lestrade! Our woman was definitely a Bulgarian – maybe a Commie agent.”
After the haircut and the usual something for the weekend, Spassov bought a single red rose from a nearby florist and after a tea to kill time on the market square, six o’clock found him in under the street lamp five hundred yards from the Italian restaurant where they were to eat that evening. Running the changes between Italian, Indian and Chinese Restaurants meant that they were only vaguely familiar to the waiters. This would be their eighty first encounter. He felt like an actor in a 40s melodrama. All he lacked was a long white belted raincoat.
As if the emphasise the passing years, three motorbikes roared up the street and came to a tyre scorching stop outside the milk bar opposite. The boys revved their engines to announce their arrival to any doll within half a mile, then they dismounted slowly, running their hands over their sleeked back hair and then down the sides of their jeans. Each wore a black leather jacket with their names in studs across their shoulders above a painted emblem – Vince, Ron and Eddie over a death’s head, a tiger and a clown’s mask.
Eddie stood by his bike, flashed his comb through his quiffed hair and began to sing. Spassov recognised a song that had been barely off the pupils’ transistor radios for the last two months. The boy continued in a tone more plaintive than in the original. From the grudging silence of his companions, Spassov gathered that they thought Eddie was a good singer.
He only stopped when the door of the milk bar opened and his voice was drowned by the blare of the jukebox. A teen angel in bunched skirts and beehive hairdo stood in the doorway and blew a bubble from her gum. As the boys strolled towards her with affected nonchalance Spassov, reflected on how glad he was not to teach this age group – though on second thoughts he realised that they must have all left school – no earnest sixth formers here.
As the door of the milk bar closed on the heaving excited Saturday night youngsters, Spassov heard the familiar sound of Mildred’s mini turning the corner.
In a minute she was in his arms, permed curls pressed into his shoulder. Something had happened. She was not usually so demonstrative in public places. And he, lonely man that he was, grasped her waist and bent his head into her perfumed neck.
The door of the milk bar opened and released a wave of sound. She pushed his chest as Freddie backed by his Dreamers sang You were made for me in a nasal falsetto. He released her and she stepped back. In her imagination leering teenagers were pointing at them.
“Let’s go to the Restaurant.” She allowed him to take her hand as she explained. “There was something horrible on the road. I’ve never seen so many police cars! I think it must have been a murder. They’d rigged up lights in the wood just before Downton and the road was half blocked. We all had to wait our turn to get through. I think I saw a body being put into an ambulance.”
“Perhaps it was an accident – a motorcyclist?”
“So many police – I don’t think so.”
She released his hand as they reached the door, she not wanting any more witnesses to their intimacy. The rose was quickly stuffed into the inside pocket of her rain coat. They would enter as if they were work colleagues. A waiter would take her coat unaware of the crushed flower head, the smothered thorns.
Ten minutes later after he had ordered a consommé and she a prawn cocktail. He looked at her and was shocked by his sense of detachment from this specimen of English middle class woman – his bit on the side. She passed a napkin over her lips, smiled complacently and leant forward across the white expanse. “How are you Mitko?”
He shrugged. Too little to tell. He reached forward to touch her hand resting by the pepper pot. “All the better for seeing you.”
She smiled. “I’ve been finding out more about your homeland.” It was her monthly present to him.
“Oh really?” He withdrew his hand, now quite guarded.
“Quite by chance – a parish book-sale. I came across a history of Bulgaria.”
He was surprised. He had not known any such history existed. For years he had been quite happy for his country’s past to be shaded in mystery. He found the ignorance of his English acquaintances quite reassuring. “Who was the author?”
“Oh some leftie vicar! I’ve just finished it. It starts with your forebears crossing the Danube and finishes almost in the present day.”
“And your general impression?”
She sighed. “I suppose all history is bloody.”
“So your reverend found us Bulgars bloody?”
“Oh very!” She wrinkled her nose. “But then you’re a passionate lot. I know! Your history is bound to be extreme – particularly with those Turkish atrocities!”
Spassov took a deep breath. The hors d’oeuvres arrived but they didn’t stunt her sympathy. “A whole five hundred years of barbarity!”
He grimaced. “Those years still hang round our shoulders. It’s given us a monstrous complex. And of course we were liberated by the Russians. Of all the peoples of the world!”
“Why?” she looked surprised then embarrassed. ”Oh of course, I’m sorry!”
“The debt that was incurred! – one my country is still paying off. And because France and Britain were afraid of Russia they imposed German kings on us.”
She grimaced. “Yes – jolly bad luck to fight on the wrong side in both world wars!”
“I can see I shall have to be careful with the stories I tell you.” The soup was cool. “You are so well informed now.”
“Yes!” Mildred popped a prawn into her mouth and reached out to touch his hand.
“So what has your vicar got to say about more recent events?”
“Oh1” she wiped her mouth again. “I told you he was a leftie. He thinks Bulgaria is progressing nicely now. Can you imagine he scarcely mentions any of the blood-letting you told me about? What was the name of your first Communist leader?”
“Georgi Dimitrov.” Spassov took a long sip of thin wine.
“Yes, our red vicar was quite taken with him. The only slight blot was some show trial where the leader of the Peasant party was condemned to death.”
“That’s right! Poor man went through the war opposing the Tsar, was even put in prison, but then as soon as the war was over and all the democratic forces united, he found himself framed on trumped up charges.”
Spassov frowned at her naivety “Petkov was a fool. He had the chance to get away. Others did. But he was stupid enough to believe the communists’ lies.” He waved his soup-spoon in exasperation. “It was the standard strategy – laid down by Stalin – across all the newly conquered countries. Create a facade of democracy by working alongside other progressive parties, and then when the time is right, liquidate their leaders.”
“The Reverend Evans says that this Nikola was a very brave man and a Christian.”
“All the more reason to get rid of him!” He leant back and allowed his plate to be removed. Mildred continued to pick and nibble her prawns one at a time. “You know,” he continued. “There’s a proverb that says you should keep your enemies close by you. For Stalin and his loyal disciples that could be rewritten: Keep your enemies close, but keep your friends even closer! Your enemies will live every second of their wretched lives in terror and your friends will get smug and fat. They can all be killed whenever convenient. Fatten the butchers: keep their apprentices lean!”
Spassov stopped abruptly. He was getting carried away. These words were not his. Where had they come from?
Mildred looked anxious. He held up his hand again but she spoke first. “I’m so sorry – all this must be so painful for you. I shouldn’t have mentioned the silly book. It’s just that I wanted to know more about your country, about you…”
“And more about my passionate character.”
“Isn’t it enough I tell you stories of bandits and bring you roses?” She blushed. Her reproving look gave him to understand that dinner was too early a time to refer to the upcoming night’s adventure.
Buck woke up with a familiar pain in his loins. He rolled over but the need to piss was insidious. Half asleep, he entertained his usual fantasies of relieving himself into a funnelled tube that would hang out of the window.
There was nothing for it. All around him boys breathed deep and regular. They never seemed to have his problem. He would have to get up, press the creaking latch on the door, creep down the spiral staircase to the bathroom next to Duke’s room and pray that he would not be detected. For Duke Wayne a need to pass water was a sure sign of punishable slackness. You drank too much water before going to bed! You were too lazy to get up to go to the loo before lights out.”
Carefully in bare feet Buck skipped across the freezing lino. Slowly he unlatched the door. At the click, Brown moved and murmured something. Buck waited for ten seconds before beginning his descent. The sixth stair gave out a rich creak. There was no avoiding it. He froze, then hearing no reaction, continued down into the dim corridor. Light seeped around the door-frames of bathroom and bedroom. There was a splash and a quavering mutter, proving that not only was Duke awake but he was having a bath. Buck tried hard but it was impossible not to try to visualise Duke’s fat body stuck in the narrow bath.
Well, he had no choice. He’d have to go outside, down by the bike shed. Carefully he lifted the latch on the outer door and thankfully the door swung open noiselessly.
Out in the moonlight, he wished he had taken his slippers. The tarmac was cold and spiky. He’d have to hurry. Skirting the wall, past Wayne’s window, he hopped painfully to the deep dark of the shed where the prefects kept their bikes. There in a corner beside Head Boy Embleton’s Raleigh he released a stream of piss.
Job done, he turned, but then froze. He could hear the crunch of approaching feet. He hugged himself and withdrew further into the deep darkness. He shuddered as he realised that he had stepped into the puddle of his own still warm piss.
A man and a woman stopped by the shed. The moon caught the woman’s face. It was Miss Grantley’s. The man had his back to him but Buck knew it was the young Geography master, Oates – known affectionately as Captain.
“Well this is it! Almost time to say Goodnight.” The Captain’s voice was gruff as if something had caught in his throat.
“Shhh!” Miss Grantley’s hiss pulsed with giggles.
“One last kiss then!”
Buck bit his lip. Things were going to get sloppy. The Captain put his arm round her waist and his face descended into hers. His hand descended to clutch her bottom.
“Trevor!” Her gasping voice was sufficiently playful to allow him to turn her so that her back was now against the wooden post of the bike shed. Buck could have leant over and touched her revolving shoulders. “You’re not very good with buttons are you? There now!” His hand unclipped her bra. “Two minutes and no more, you naughty boy!”
The Captain made little puppy sounds, followed by deep sucking smacking kisses, that Buck knew were not directed at Miss Grantley’s lips. He stared at the tight skirted bottom that swayed rhythmically as the Geography teacher explored the valley, the swelling uplands, the pointed summits of her tits To his dismay, Buck realised his willy had become uncomfortably stiff. He bit his lip harder.
The captain now bent his knees and a hand began pulling at the hem of Miss Grantley’s skirt. But to Buck’s relief, she reacted firmly.
“No! Stop that, you naughty boy! You know the rules!”
“You’re such a prick tease, Sue!”
Miss Grantley pushed him away and began buttoning her blouse. “I’m not having any man lifting my skirt on a cold dark night in the school playground. It’s time to say Good Night! You may give me one last kiss on the cheek.”
And so in the light of the full moon, Trevor Oates brushed his frustrated lips on Sue Grantley’s chilly cheek and then they went their separate ways – Sue towards the main building and Oates back towards the bottom gate and the muddy track to the young masters’ cottage.
Buck was shaking. He was sure Wayne would have finished his bath by now. He’d be caught, returning from the outside with no acceptable excuse. But he had no choice.
He scampered back to the door. His feet had lost all feeling. He carefully pressed the latch and pushed the door open. The corridor was exactly as he had left it. He turned to carefully close the door and creep upstairs. Almost at the top, he heard the bathroom door open. Panicked, he pressed too hard on the dormitory door-latch. There was a sharp click.
“Who’s there?” Wayne’s shrill voice preceded the shuffling of his mighty slippers on the stone flags below. Buck did not linger but scooted across the dormitory and slid into bed a minute before Wayne appeared breathing heavily and silhouetted against the moonlit window in a short towelling robe.
Buck lay with his eyes tight shut and tried to control his breathing in an attempt to simulate deep sleep. Some boy close by – it was probably Ryan groaned. Wayne moved quickly to his bed side. He must have stood there a good two minutes. But then he grunted and left closing the door behind him.
Mitko Spassov was also awake – no longer in a bandit’s tent, but staring into the dark of a hotel room. Mildred lay beside him, sleeping the sleep of satisfied desire. Tomorrow she would drive back to St Albans where they had first met. Spassov’s first teaching job had been in a prep school there.
Ten years earlier Spassov had entertained a fancy to penetrate British middle class culture and so he graduated from sipping lonely pints of execrable Double Diamond in his local mock Tudor pub to spending free weekends and evenings with the Lawn Players. He joined in November and his exotic accent and solid physique made him an obvious choice for the part of Aladdin’s genie.
Mildred was a little old to play Princess Badroulbadour but she was a long standing member of the group with a loyal audience. She usually got what she wanted. The effect of seeing Spassov stripped to the waist and glistening in baby oil led to her demanding that he play Othello in the spring to her Desdemona. Guy who had always dreamt of directing this play, readily agreed – especially as Mildred artfully suggested he would be wonderful as Iago.
Pretending to strangle Mildred every night set the foundations for their long term affair. Among the self obsessed Lawn Players their growing closeness was scarcely noticed. Spassov felt so lonely. Mildred was dissatisfied with her life. Her husband, Gerry, had his weekends of golf and mistresses. He was happy that his wife had her amusing interests. In their weekday morning encounters over coffee in the open plan kitchen that had every modern appliance, neither asked the other about their weekend activities.
Egged on by her flirting after the show, Spassov would attempt some clumsy embrace in the alley way behind the church hall on the way to the pub, and she was excited and flattered, but never allowed any intimacy beyond a brush with her tightly buttoned raincoat.
But when Spassov made a practical proposal quietly in the corner of the pub after a particularly lively performance of French without Tears he was surprised by the quickness of her acceptance. A full night of unbridled passion in a hotel in Oxford was arranged. She would drive there in her mini. He would take the bus.
Gerry easily swallowed the lie that she had arranged to stay with a friend so she could spend the entire day in the Ashmolean museum. His culture vulture wife was the butt of many a golf club joke. So their mutually satisfying encounter was repeated irregularly over succeeding years.
The arrangement had survived Spassov having to leave St Albans and the Lawn Players. The Headmaster had been apologetic – but he’d made it clear to Spassov from the beginning, he was keeping the seat warm for his son, who had now sown his wild oats and was ready to take up the position of deputy in the family firm. But I do know of a place down in Wiltshire near Salisbury. Head by the name of Delaheuze, looking for a chap just like you.
Three nights later Mildred and he had re-enacted Othello and Desdemona’s wedding night in which Muriel had so departed from the agreed script as to shout Stick it in me, you big black brute so loudly that Spassov feared that the people in the next room might have phoned Reception for the police.
Taxed in a whisper about it over breakfast, Mildred had denied vehemently ever saying such a thing, but she seemed enthusiastic about his move to Wiltshire. It will be better. No-one knows me there. Just let me know your free weekends and we’ll carry on as before. I can’t do without you, you exotic man.
Sex, thought Spassov as he stared into the dark, should be a spontaneous act of love – but he was haunted by a guilty sense of absurdity. Their dramatic improvisations did bring some moments of unexpected excitement, but over the years he increasingly looked on their encounters as just some relief from the intolerable human itch. Did he love Mildred? This was a question with dangerous implications. Mildred made it plain with her random references to home life that, despite her husband’s indiscretions, she would not willingly forsake the comfort and freedom that his wealth brought.
Sometimes Spassov saw his murdered father standing by the end of the bed, shaking his head in disbelief. Where is the bride? Where are the grandchildren? Spassov wanted to scream – Go back to Bulgaria! This is no place for you! Go and look at my sister. She’s got two children to make you proud! But his father would stand there still shaking his head. You are my son! You carry the family name.
Spassov closed his eyes and tried to will different images into his head. And so from the dark red blot behind his eyelids images from the book now swam into his view. With his grinning monstrous face and body contorting into obscene poses, the devil spoke the words, he had involuntarily quoted earlier that evening: Fatten up the butchers. Keep their apprentices lean. And as he watched the devil winked and his face became drawn. Moustaches sprouted and the eyes protruded. A smug smile – all he needed was a smoking pipe. Spassov saw the face of the murdering tyrant and father of modern Socialist Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov.
In a second the creature waved its spiky tail and winked again. The long lines of care smoothed , the face rounded and the moustaches disappeared but the still protruding eyes glared red at him like volcanic craters.
ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! Spassov opened his eyes and rolled out of bed. He would pad to the toilet at the end of the corridor. Perhaps a mournful piss would help him sleep.