Discover more from John Bleasdale Writes On Film
Connery (Part 20)
A Speculative Novel
We made Christmas cards with glitter and glue and pieces of felt that we cut into Christmas trees and Santas. I glued my fingers together and then waited for the glue to dry and then peeled it off like an old skin. The day was a deep dark blue outside and the rain hammered against the glass. Everything smelled of hand sanitizer and later me and Alexei put up the Christmas decorations, closely supervised by Alexandra and Bob.
‘Green and red is a good combination,’ I said as we strung streamers across the ceiling and tacked the ends to the walls.
We sprayed the corners of the windows with artificial snow. And using a stencil, we sprayed messages of seasonal greetings. There would be a menu for the Christmas lunch that we had to agree on and then there was the Christmas television schedule to argue over and book and organise. Everyone wanted to watch different things. And some of the arguments led to scenes and possible sanctions. But when they put the lights out and I lay in my bed, in my room listening to the new self-harmer crying next door and the rain banging down outside, the guttering overflowing and dripping, I knew there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was looking forward to Christmas Day and then the New Year. I hadn’t looked forward to anything for ages.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I wouldn’t be forgiven. There were people out there in the darkness, in the battering rain, in the swirling snow, in the shattering heat, in the ghostly fog, who wished me ill and they were powerful people; people with resources and skills had labelled me as a threat and I might be able to placate them with some useful work but they weren’t going to be properly happy until I was dead. Out of the picture. Gone. Cremated. And my ashes scattered over the face of the deep. Or shot into space. I spent a lot of time thinking back to La Rochelle and Paris. I even thought back to Feather Lane. I had an urge to visit the place and the Rock where I had first met Sean Connery. With Dr. Havelock’s encouragement, I began to keep a diary and this led me to start writing these pages which you now read. Although now these pages, these particular ones, are pages I am writing much later than the ones which you read back at the beginning when I was just a boy. I was writing the film as well and then the ghosts start speaking and writing it all done is a way to keep their stupid mouths shut.
Following Martin’s suicide, I could have easily got myself released, but I stayed on for the rest of the year at the clinic under Dr. Havelock’s glinting eye. I enjoyed talking to her and I enjoyed the sweeping panorama, although it was several weeks before I was allowed out to walk on the beach once more and then only if I took a carer. All the carers were more attentive now.
There was something I liked about Whitby. Of course, it was an awful place but it was the reverse of where I was from. Facing the North Sea instead of the Irish Sea. But there was the same peculiar loneliness. I liked the TV room; I took comfort in the ordinary food. I put on some weight. I took all my medication and I slept whenever I had the opportunity. I needed time. I needed to lie low and I believed that no one would look for me at the crime scene of my last murder. I enjoyed watching the soap operas, the cookery programmes, the house buying programmes, the gardening programmes, the reality TV. The stultifying boredom soothed me. If I wanted excitement, I would sit with my face close to the window and watch different drops of rain track down the glass pane.
The death of Martin gave me very little satisfaction. As an exercise of manipulation it was so easy as to be negligible. It didn’t really count. If I had been keeping some kind of logbook, I doubt I would have written it in. Maybe in pencil. So, it was right that it didn’t follow my usual hit-and-run modus operandi. Writing about my childhood and reflecting on how I had stabbed Gavin in the face and how I had gone to Paris and planned and carried out that murder, I was a bit hazy about who I had actually killed. This was also due to the fact that it was a story I had already told Arnie when I wrote first the treatment and then the script so bits that I had changed due to his notes now came in as if they were memories and I began to worry about some of my memories perhaps being influenced by the alibis I had given in some cases. Not to mention the toll the movie writing and rewriting process had taken on my grip on reality.
When I woke up on Christmas morning, there were some presents for everyone under the tree. We had organised a Secret Santa so everyone got something, mostly handmade. A drawing or painting. A piece of curved stitching or a pot. One knitted glove. A little sculpture made out of plasticine. These were supplemented with treats that the carers had brought in. A box of pencils, a new pack of cards, a chocolate orange. We played pass the parcel.
‘No one likes you,’ my ghosts told me as I smiled at the people. ‘People want you dead.’
‘I’m loved, I’m happy and I’m brave,’ I repeated the mantra that Dr. Havelock had given me.
‘People who are good at killing people want to kill you,’ my ghosts told me.
We had turkey and mashed potatoes that were made from a powder and still had dry patches. Brussel sprouts and a gravy that just another phase of coagulation away from having a skin, or a hide for that matter. There was blob of cranberry sauce that tasted like jam. In the morning we watched the Queen’s Speech and, in the afternoon, we watched Grease. Dr. Havelock came in and we all wished her happy Christmas. She waved around at everyone and gave us all small presents. She gave me a book about astronomy. Alexei got a Snakes and Ladders game. And then in the evening we watched Sean Connery in The Untouchables. He was great. He tells Costner what to do all the time and is always wise. When he shoots the dead guy in the mouth so as to scare the other guy into giving them the information. He blows his brains splattering out across the window, though they probably cut it a bit for television. When he died barking through his own blood having dragged himself across the floor of his apartment, cut to ribbons with machinegun bullets and leaving a slick of dark red blood, it was quite moving. Seeing Connery got me thinking that I had to move and within the week I had got myself a release. It was the strangest thing to be in Whitby in the morning, saying an emotional goodbye to everyone and then in London in time for dinner and then the Eurostar to Paris and from Paris a night train to Zurich. I was exhilarated and yet also lulled by the journey. I decided to cut the drugs down to nothing. In Zurich, I booked into a good hotel and visited my bank to see how my funds were holding up. I had worried that perhaps Alan had seen fit to carry out his threat of interfering but he had been hot air. Alan wouldn’t necessarily bother me if I stayed away from the US and other spheres of interest. The money was there and I transferred some of it, withdrew a little bit, happy to feel the weight of heavy cash in my inside pocket. I bought a suit, pyjamas, shirts, shoes and a new set of luggage to put it all in along with travel essentials, wash bags and that sort of thing. Then I went back to the hotel and bagged all my clothes and belongings I had brought with me from Whitby and rang room service and gave them instructions to destroy everything. ‘Incinerate all of it,’ I said. The hotel came with a spa and well-furnished gym. The next day I began my routine of a workout followed by laps of the pool. The sauna at the most intense heat I could manage without passing out. My ghosts faded in the eucalyptus scented steam.
Outside it was cold with snow on the ground, gravy-coloured sludge at the side of the road, and a fluttering of flakes under the streetlamps but I went for walks, more akin to my forced marches back in Yorkshire than a seasonal stroll. It got dark early and I would eat meat and fish alternating every day and shunning carbohydrates. Within a fortnight I was beginning to recognise myself once more. I would go to bed early and read books in French and German. It was good to be back amongst people who spoke something that wasn’t English. Decent people. Only now did I realise how stultifying English could be following my protracted stay in the US and then Canada and finally Whitby. The only thing I had kept from Whitby were my diaries which I would occasionally look over and add to: correcting a story here, a date there. Meanwhile, I was getting almost daily bulletins via a dedicated email account from Arnie about the film which was hurtling towards its start date. There would be location shooting in the Spring and then studio space had been booked for May when the rest of the principal photography would take place. The director was a visionary, I was assured. There would be no invitations for me and I was happy to keep a low profile even though in a moment of inspired forgetfulness Arnie suggested Taylor might want to contribute a song, ‘at a family discount.’ I told him to forget about that, but I was happy that he was not hanging up on me anymore and I felt confident for the first time ever that the film was actually going to be made, bar something dreadful happening in the interim.
Knowing sociopaths the way I believe I do – inside out, if you will – one of our weaknesses as a group is an arrogant assumption of superiority. We believe ourselves to be above other people and think ourselves able with relative impunity to use other people as we will. What else are they there for? It rarely occurs to us that other people might be thinking, thinking, thinking the very same thing of us. To some extent, my work in the security services over the years has worked this out of me, imbuing me with a sharp sense of professionally cultivated paranoia. Although I have a similar contempt for the masses, the civilians as we like to think of them, I am at least aware of the sharks in the water and am not blinded by the ubiquitous krill. This sense has been further heightened by the fact that I have been largely working outside the regular lines that designate the official secret services. This means I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude to other law enforcement agencies and even our own. And now with my reputation widely known and not particularly well-tended, I also felt a justified alertness towards all actors as potential threats. I knew that my movements would be tracked and my proximity to danger areas would ring bells and unfurl red flags. I also knew that the worst thing to do was what I most felt like doing, which was to drop completely off the map. To do that would ring an alarm bell: a loud inter-agency one. I would become a problem and once more some of the higher ups who were no doubt becoming tired of hearing my name might decide that they had finally had enough and so send out a white envelope – if belonging to the UK secret services – or a manila one if the orders were to come from across the pond. Someone like me would then be on the way to wherever I had holed up. My first stay at Whitby had only partly been tactical. I was self-aware enough to know I was exhausted and frazzled and needed some stasis if only for a while. But this routine in Switzerland was also part of a lulling technique. He wants to be close to his money, they would be thinking. Enjoying life. Getting back in shape. It all made a certain sense. I began to think that perhaps I wouldn’t be watched too closely. After all a year had passed. Maybe more. It wasn’t clear. As long as I was consistently there – week in week out – I might not have to be there every single day and night. I went to Venice on the night train, bribed the guard into selling me a ticket for a private couchette just before the train left the station. There are always empty ones and the guard can get away with pocketing some extra money and I don’t have an electronic trail of credit card payments. Tom Arrow did not have the same honed sense of paranoia. He was an apex predator who only thought about what he might kill. Not what might kill him. He was like the guns of an old fortress, with his aggressive violence facing out in one direction and confident that his insurmountable cliffs will defend him from all attack. The stairs of his palazzo were fairly steep but his security system was awful. The easiest thing in the world to bypass. And the locks on the doors were a joke. I knew that he slept in the middle of the day. It had been a lifelong habit of his to take a siesta, he had told me when he first met, he was a night owl. And being an old man, the sleep was likely to be long and deep.
Sharks don’t fear other sharks. Not big white ones like Tom Aloysius Arrow. They were so intent on their own prey, on the thrashing legs near the surface, that they paid no regard to the dark shadow moving beneath them. Arrow was a veteran of the old school, untouchable, invincible and almost totally undefended. His only enemies were the old enemies and he had an early warning system, a series of tripwires, set up to alert him of any hostile intent. Not to mention a superannuated chivalric code which saw the pieces on the board sacrificed and taken but the players themselves remain aloof and unhurt; invincible and untouchable. A heavy geriatric sleep had fallen on Ca’ Bembo. No noise was made but the sounds of boats on the canal outside the closed and shuttered windows. There was a midday night here. I sat by his bed and listened to his rasping breath. Slats of sunshine fell like pencil drawn white lines on the parquet floor. I had a think. I had already identified the other staff members. They were roomed in low bedrooms right up in the attic of the palazzo. Two were in the kitchen having a post-lunch game of cards with cups of coffee. One was out visiting a cousin. The other was in his room, the old butler with the light green cardigan, as old as his master and following his sleep patterns by force of habit.
I had a mental map of the palazzo from my previous visit. I was suddenly aware that Arrow’ breathing had changed. He was awake. His eyes were open. I wasn’t sure for how long I had dawdled in my thoughts. Nor if he knew who I was, but he would know that someone was there in the dark. He was only just coming out of sleep but he was awake.
‘Think very carefully about how you proceed young man,’ his voice was loud and strong, compared to his breathing. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I need a funeral.’
‘I’m sure one can be…’
I pulled his pillow out from under his head and held it firmly over his face, probably breaking his beaky nose in the process. I leaned down on it with all my weight as he began to buck and struggle, using my elbows to hold him. There were some hoarse cries, but I leaned even harder onto him and his movements began to weaken and the sound shift to a strangled sigh of desperation. A fist like a bone club patted me on the shoulder as if in fatherly approval and then even that fell and uncurled on the sheet, like a dying crab.
I searched his bedroom thoroughly using the pen light, moving softly, shoeless. There was a small office adjacent to the bedroom with no windows. A desk, laptop, lamp, telephone bank and a small pair of opera glasses. A renaissance map of Venice, a modern political map of Europe. At first, I didn’t bother with the computer or the phone. He would have topflight encryption technology. But also, being a man of a different age, I expected he would keep his own notes on paper, and this would give him away. Like a grandmother writing her pin code on her bank card with a felt tip pen. I used my phone to photograph the documents I found. There was a notebook that was easy to pocket, and, in a desk, there was a sheaf of white envelopes and a box of green slips. I rolled these up and put them in a small satchel that was hung on the back of a chair. On a whim, I looked through some of the books on the shelf. There were old hardback editions of Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare and Scott. But there was also a paperback of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. I took it out and flicked through it. On the back flyleaf there was a list of email addresses beside gobbledygook words helpfully entitled ‘Passwords’. I opened the laptop and entered Arrow’s system, pulled up a document and altered it and then backdated the time stamp to three weeks ago as Martin had shown me while I was in Whitby. He had been full of all sorts of tips and backdoors and like most experts enjoyed teaching everyone and anyone.
Going back to his bedroom, I took the pillow from Arrow’s face. His nose had broken and there was some blood bubbling. I took some of the blood and smeared it on the corner of the dresser. I positioned his body on the floor so that it looked like he had got out of bed and collapsed hitting his face on the hard edge of the nightstand on his way down. It wouldn’t convince anybody truly smart – especially if they noticed anything missing. But there was always the chances that the authorities wouldn’t necessarily want an investigation and the scrutiny and press attention that a murder would bring. This was a very frail tale, but after my experience in New York and Moonbeam I was convinced that the authorities could be made to bend this way and that when it served their own interest to do so. In fact, my entire employment history was testament to the fact. And anyway it wasn’t the authorities I was trying to talk to so much as his friends and colleagues. They would naturally suspect foul play. But the man had a pantheon of high-powered enemies. I could already imagine the hypotheses being gamed internationally. The Russians would have made it more obvious; the Americans less.
With the satchel on my shoulder, I made my way through the back door to the garden and through the gate where I had exited that time to kill a journalist with fatally poor taste in trousers. Outside it was very cold and the alleyways and squares were crowded with revellers – the air was crisp and the paving stones underfoot slippery with frost and confetti from the carnival crowds. I walked against a steady stream of Jack Sparrows and Disney Princesses, masked Eighteenth Century dandies and their dames, beak horned plague doctors from Eyes Wide Shut and peacocks of magnificent plumage. I bought a 5-euro half face mask from a stall and slipped it on. The face painters had set up their stalls at the foot of the Scalzi bridge and in a crescent in front of the squat horizontal railway station.
‘I’m surprised you dared to show your face,’ Jennifer said.
The funeral was being held in the small Tuscan hilltop town of San Gimignano, less than a week later. It was a ridiculous town, visited only by tourists these days, coachloads of whom were dumped by the side of the road. Warring noble families had vied for status by building their palazzos in the form of towers and racing to the heavens. In little more than a hilltop village a porcupine of towers challenged the sky. But Arrow had spent his youth in Italy and was attached to San Gimignano for some reason and his will – modified a few weeks prior to his death – had stipulated the funeral service be held there. Truth be told his body remained in Venice and had already been interred in a private ceremony, but this would be the public memorial to which the spymasters of the west were expected to show their faces. It was held in the main collegiate church in the sloping town square at the top of the hill. Private security made up half the congregation. And the ‘mourners’ huddled close to the altar, exchanging smiles and nods, discrete hands signals and obvious misinformation. The frescoes were by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzoli, Taddeo di Bartolo, Lippo Memmi and Bartolo di Fredi. I saw the back of Jennifer’s head. There was no spouse in sight and so I had gone and kneeled next to her.
‘Not you too,’ I said. ‘Ollie’s already given me an earful.’
He hadn’t really. He just looked surprised to see me and asked if I had got an invitation, which I hadn’t and which he didn’t seem to think was a problem. ‘I’ll add you to the list.’ He shook my hand on the steps of the church and there were tears in his eyes.
‘He was one of a kind,’ I said. ‘How did he…?’
But Ollie waved me away, overcome. It is funny how he reacted. I didn’t believe there was much affection between the two of them. Father and son. Ollie’s childhood – as he had told me hundreds of times – had been a catalogue of neglect and supreme indifference, mixed with the occasional strobing of lighthouse beam scrutiny. He was a disappointment only when he was noticed and adult Ollie had been damned if he could work out which of the two, he hated the most. But when a man’s father dies, you are only partly mourning the man himself, I was told by Dr Habbermas. She told me – vis-a-vis my own father’s death – even if I didn’t get along with him personally, I would always feel compelled to mourn the idea of the father. So if the father had been a good one you barely notice this, but if the father had not lived up to the ideal you mourn three times, she had said: ‘You mourn your real father with all his faults, the missed opportunity of the ideal father who you will never get and the holy ghost who is the gap between the two.’
Don’t ask me what she meant. I honestly didn’t have a clue at the time. But watching Ollie blub over his antique parent’s demise, I gathered he at least was feeling something.
‘We never see you,’ Jennifer whispered. ‘He talked about you often you know. My uncle was very fond of you. In as much as he could be fond of anybody. You puzzled him I think. He wasn’t a man used to being puzzled.’
‘I was very fond of him,’ I said. ‘What was it? Ollie was in no condition to fill me in and the obituary was very vague.’
‘A massive heart attack.’
‘Or a stroke. One of the two. Sudden though. Didn’t know what hit him. Dead before he hit the ground.’
Like poor Hunter Dennett.
Shaking my head, sadly. Wistfully. ‘Poor old fellow.’
The church was half full. Lots of service personnel around and plenty of hired heavies touching their ears. If this was a gangster movie, I would have guessed that Ollie was the new Godfather. Everyone paid their respects to him. He sat with a small dumpy woman. Alan Parlon nodded at me across the gloom, his glasses were two squares of reflected light in the darkness. The light from the windows fell in diagonal shafts the way it did in the prayer cards my mother used as bookmarks.
‘Ollie got married,’ Jennifer said.
‘My god,’ I said. ‘Wonders will never cease.’
‘You haven’t heard the worse of it,’ Jennifer said. ‘I’ve reproduced.’
‘How time flies. Congratulations I suppose.’
‘Don’t be jealous, Sam.’
‘I’m not…’ she grimaced at this so I changed tack. ‘Well, just a little bit.’
‘Enough to be polite.’
‘God, funerals make me horny. Where are you staying?’
‘A little Osteria just outside the city walls.’
‘I’ve got a room, less than five minutes away from this very spot. Shall we?’
‘Have we got time before the reception?’
‘A quick one. We can skip the eulogy.’
‘Of the funeral or the foreplay?’
The priest spoke from a card in which he had written down pertinent details which could be released. ‘Though I never knew Tom, I can tell from the short time I have spent with his family that he was a man of great warmth and intelligence. A powerful man who tried to bend the world towards the good and for this we must all be grateful and admiring.’
His English was good with a beautifully gothic European accent which enriched the words beyond the chill pallor of the original pronunciation. He had outrageously bushy eyebrows and his vestments were colourful, red and gold with a purple sash. ‘Tom was a wonderful father to [almost imperceptible glance at card] Oliver and husband to …’
As we came out of the church a crowd of tourists blocked the steps, huddled around a woman who had a microphone headset and was holding aloft a stick with a bunch of bright green ribbons on the end. They snapped away at us on their phones. Some of the men still carried large camera-looking cameras with lenses that you screw in and out. Like everything in the town, Jennifer’s hotel was thin and tall, cramped and old. Her bedroom had a ceiling that was so low, I risked bumping my head as we bounced athletically up and down on the bed.
Her body had changed. As had mine. The thickness around the waist for me; a largeness to her buttocks, less elasticity of the skin, fingerprints stayed and the red mark from a slap faded unhurriedly. I rarely got the opportunity to spend time with a naked body and so my curiosity was aroused more than my arousal. But I could pass it off.
‘You’ve got fat,’ she said.
‘I’m on a diet.’
‘How old are you Sammy?’
‘Thirty-three. Or thirty-four.’
‘That’s still really young.’
We were getting dressed now. I liked these moments with Jennifer. In a way, this part was more intimate. We were more ourselves pulling our socks on and struggling with sleeves and buttons than we were sweaty and engrossed in putting bits of ourselves into each other. ‘I don’t feel very young.’
‘The first blush is off the rose, huh?’ Jennifer said.
I nodded and for some reason I felt an intense attack of what I can only describe as anguish. What was I doing? What had I become? How far away I felt from that little boy who lived on Feather Lane and walked his dog. Killed his dog, if rumour is to be believed.
‘Hey, don’t be sad,’ Jennifer said. Her voice tender. ‘Life doesn’t always deliver on its promises. We know that, right?’
I nodded; for a moment unable to speak. And what shocked me is that I had done this before, pretended to be overcome with emotion to garner sympathy or to foreclose a conversation, but I had never actually felt this before. What a terrible way of feeling. Is this what people talk about when they go on and on and on about emotions? Because if it was, then they can keep them. They’re horrible.
Jennifer gave me a smacking kiss and a squeeze. ‘Come on. No point moping. We’ll do this again sometime though. Don’t be a stranger, Sam.’
We made our way with a slight time delay to the restaurant on the wall of the town with the terrace that offered a broad cinematic sweep of the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Jennifer took her postcoital insouciance on a quick turn of the crowd. I took a glass of orange juice from a passing teenaged girl in a long black skirt and white blouse. Ollie came over to me.
‘You really effed things up with the yanks,’ Ollie said, holding a bottle of Vernaccia white wine. ‘I was surprised they let you out. I thought they’d have you blindfolded and shackled in some middle eastern basement, the way they were spitting feathers about you.’
‘We came to an agreement.’
‘I know. That IT consultant who took a dive off a cliff in Whitby. Neatly done.’
I looked at him blankly.
‘Don’t worry. We were glad to get rid of him. You did us all a solid on that one. What I’ve been thinking though is maybe it’s time you came back into the family a little bit. I know you weren’t working for dad so much after New York.’
‘I was too recognisable.’
‘Yes, there is that,’ Ollie emptied his glass and then looked thirstily for another. ‘But that will blow over and you are incredibly good at what you do. I mean, you leave the others in the dust.’
‘That’s something I always wondered…’
‘Well, how many others are there? Like me I mean.’
Ollie blew his lips out and made a trumpeting sound the way Frenchmen and elephants are wont to do.
‘Hard to tell, especially with dad gone. He had the list and the details and what not, and you know what the old man was like about backing up his hard drive and using a ruddy computer. Probably had the whole thing written on the back of a napkin somewhere. But still a guesstimate… I wouldn’t say more than five in total. Not on our books anyway.’
‘Not that there are any books, obviously.’
‘All independent of each other. No one knowing anything.’
‘No one but the Spider. That’s what they used to call dad in the service.’
‘Really? That I didn’t know.’
Food came out and it was delicious. Little antipasti, small pieces of toasted bread topped with tomatoes and garlic, or a pate made from boar liver, or a fatty slice of raw bacon, or melon with prosciutto, then small bowls of saffron flavoured risotto, and fresh pasta with porcini mushrooms.
‘The food here is wonderful,’ Alan said. Ollie had disappeared in a crowd of East Europeans with whom he began to drink with reckless speed. ‘Do you know that church we were in earlier is older than my country?’
‘There is wine in the cellar of this restaurant that is older than your country,’ I said.
‘Ha ha,’ Alan laughed as if dictating. ‘Pre-Columbus. Wow. Seriously. That is … amazing. We find something that’s still in its original packaging from the 1980s we put it up for auction.’
‘America, new. Europe, old. I get it.’
‘What’s your game Coleridge?’
‘I haven’t got a game.’
He genuinely laughed at that.
‘Everyone has a game Sam. What is it? What’s the plan? For the rest of your life?’
I smiled at him. ‘I’m going to write movies.’
He nodded. ‘Yes, I heard about that as well.’ He put down his bowl of tiramisu and wiped his mouth on a cloth napkin and then his hands. ‘I’m not sure that’s going to happen.’
‘It’s already filming.’
‘Plugs can be pulled. Even finished films can be put in a vault and never seen again.’
‘Why the animus Alan?’
Alan shrugged. ‘We need you to be scared and when not scared, grateful. And if we can’t have either of those things, then we need you to be gone.’
He stuck out his hand.
Took his hand.
Shook his hand.
And said, ‘Fuck off.’
It was the first time I had ever used the word.