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Author Biography: Christopher Wallace was born in Germany in 1962 and educated at the University of Sterling in Scotland. The Pied Piper's Poison is his first novel; it has been published in five countries.
I have no choice but to return to those eyes watching me. Eyes that should have been on the road ahead but instead were fixed on the rear-view mirror as I sat in the back of the Soviet automobile concentrating equally hard, trying not to betray my growing unease. What a pair we must have made — fearful passenger and mute driver, travelling east towards the Tatras mountains of southern Poland, a journey which then seemed as if it would last forever though now long frozen in the time of its passing, the winter of 1946. Yes, we were truly an inseparable couple, bonded together as prisoner and jailer that afternoon, only now it seems so much less clear as to who was who. A cold afternoon, ominously darkening as evening approached, as cold as I had ever known. Those eyes were never off me even though the road ahead was treacherous and full of pot-holes. I pull up the collar of my army greatcoat and try to wrap it around my head to protect my freezing ears. But the garment is not up to the task, obviously fashioned to combat the gentler chill of a British winter rather than this uncivilised freeze. The collar folds like wet cardboard, chafing the back of my raw neck, the coat having all the warmth of a thin school blazer.
Another field goes by, the flatlands endless. Ragged women and children scrape bare-handed at the silvery frozen soil. I focus momentarily on a cart bearing a few tiny potatoes. Is this the time to plant? I realise with a shock that this is their pathetic harvest, turning away once I realise I am being watched again — my driver's fascination has not waned. Is it because I amas strange and alien to him as this terrain and surroundings are to me? Is he wondering if I have money, a concealed weapon? Perhaps his Red Army commander has warned him to look out for any sudden moves by his charge?
None of these. It was only much later I would realise the reason for his interest. He was fascinated by me, yes; but not because of any innate quality I might have. It was because he knew what I was being taken to see.
Would it be so inappropriate to talk of this? It would certainly not be what was expected. What does one normally hear at these occasions, where should one begin? With thanks, I suppose, gratitude to those colleagues whose support I am meant to have enjoyed through the years. Or perhaps an attempt at humour, to put the audience at ease; a medical school jape involving a display skeleton and a frightened caretaker, way back in the Thirties when it was all somehow less serious? Perhaps not. If I were to speak of the real starting point it would have to be the eyes, staring back at me in silence, squinting into the rear-view mirror, mile after mile. Not what they're expecting to hear, no; I've never spoken to anyone about those eyes. Dark eyes, slightly slanted, almost Chinese, Slavic eyes tucked under a flat forehead, as new to me then as I was to them, the world between us.
I stare at the page. How long am I expected to last, twenty minutes? I suppose it must be up to me. When would they start to shift uncomfortably, playing with the gift set, the engraved watch and all, anxiously craving for the old bugger to finish? There have been enough hints about what is required, not that I need them. I've had to sit through enough of these things myself, nobody likes them. Still, they need to be done, and I should keep mine short. Witty but humble. Warm farewell and best wishes for the future to all at the practice. And once that's been safely negotiated there's the photographs — me with the other doctors, with the nurse and receptionists, and then with my wife and daughter. My son won't be there of course, `too busy', too involved in something more interesting. I expect his wife will send a card or telegram; she's good at that sort of thing. Imagine — twenty-nine years old and already `too busy'. He's impressive, Stephen. Up-front, a thruster, and with a definite presence about him. I often wonder if he's ever had a moment of real doubt in his whole life. Not that there's anything wrong in that; that's what all the school fees were about, and the holidays, and the love his mother invested in him. All of it so that he could be as he is. So why do I feel so bitter, so jealous when I think of him now? Why would the speech I want to give be directed at those who will not be there?
I've given up fighting off the memories of the past, it's just been impossible to stop it crashing back into my life. Somehow events have conspired to revive the nightmares, an orchestrated campaign of coincidence.
An elderly patient sits before me in surgery. A quiet, unassuming man, embarrassed to be there, dragged in by a shrewish wife. I feign interest in the mumbled symptoms. Breathlessness? Anxiety? How long's it been going on for? Months? Is there anything else bothering you? He is still for a moment and then begins to unbutton his shirt. The vest is pulled up; underneath, an angry rash, a raw and scarlet attack on his pale skin. And this? How recent is this? Ever had anything like it before? You were in the war, weren't you? He nods. Paratrooper, seen action in the desert and Normandy. And you've been thinking about it recently, haven't you? Getting scared on the back of old memories, dreaming about it all, remembering those who died, and it's almost as if it's happening again, isn't it? The head stoops slightly, yes, how did you know, am I going mad, doctor? I roll up my sleeve. There, at the top of my left arm, the same colours, the same eczema. Snap. No more mad than me.
Arthur Lee's manuscript arrived out of the blue seven months ago. His brother had died and when they looked through Arthur's original papers they found my name for some reason. It took several weeks' contemplation — or do I mean hesitation — before I could bring myself to look at it, let alone start reading its yellowing pages. I thought back to those nights when I would watch him toil with it, seeing him grow progressively shaky as it drained him of energy, wondering why he would persevere when the effort obviously agonised him. He was convinced, of course, that amongst the ruin he'd found the truth, that something positive could be gleaned from it all. Perhaps that's why he was so wretchedly protective of it, frantically covering up all his notes, locking the case away each night. Another of his eccentricities? No, having at last read it I can tell you all it is a fine work, every bit as haunting as the memories its sudden reappearance inspired, and I shall quote freely from it in the course of my speech. The method in his madness is at last apparent. The tragedy of Arthur Lee is our tragedy.
So please forgive me, ladies and gentlemen, if I spend longer than might have been anticipated, and if the content of my address is perhaps more sombre than one would normally encounter at such an occasion.
You see, I cannot talk of my 'career' in medicine because I am, and always have been, a fraud. I cannot heal. I have never been allowed to. Now I have to tell why.
Perhaps it might be appropriate to spend a little time detailing the background to the journey we begin with. What was going on in the mind of that nervous, self-conscious young man then under such unyielding scrutiny?
I was twenty-four.
A qualified doctor for less than a year, I had barely seen out my first six months of army service. It might seem a relatively mature age by today's standards but please try to imagine how innocent and green I would have been then, plucked from a comfortable childhood — yes, childhood — in the tranquillity of Helensburgh on the outskirts of Glasgow, to be sent on a mission to mop up one of the war's more unsavoury legacies. A virgin, ladies and gentlemen, in every sense.
When I travelled out to join A-M-U-4 — Army Medical Expeditionary Unit 4 — it was the first time I had ever been overseas. I had never met an American before Vesey, the Unit's chief, held out his hand and welcomed me aboard with some inane platitudes in what seemed an absurdly deep voice — a parody, surely, of the stereotype I would have expected from the cinema? No, he was for real. And when I was billeted with Arthur Lee it would be the first time I had shared a bedroom, my initiation made all the more alarming when he sobbed himself, conspicuously, to sleep on that and every other night that followed. Having to pass judgement on the wretched creatures brought before me in the Berlin camps that winter was the first time my opinion had ever mattered to anyone other than myself, let alone been the basis of a life or death pronouncement; here was a sudden and near fatal overdose of responsibility.
An innocent, then. I was too naive to question why one so lacking in experience should have been selected for a unit especially formed, according to Vesey, to deal with `delicate matters'. Anxious, for some preposterous reason, to create a favourable impression — serious, capable, I even saluted Vesey at the end of that first meeting, the only time I would ever make him feel awkward. He looked up from his desk, startled and irritated. `... There's ah ... no need for all that ...' he murmured, returning to the mound of files in front of him.
The unit was based in Berlin, or the point on the map where the once great city had stood before every brick and stone had been pulverised to dust. The fresh golden timber of the camp huts in which we sat stuck out in the grey landscape like saplings bursting through a ground floor of ancient lava, lava that covered over a thousand terrible secrets.
The ruins of the Reich's capital had become a staging post for a great tide of migration that followed the end of the war, mostly Germans moving west from the Soviet-held east. Our work, Vesey explained, would be centred on these people, assessing them, ensuring they were fit to travel and, more importantly, screening them for any contagion which they might carry with them on their travels. It was sensitive work, he said; these people had been through a lot and their tolerance levels were low. I thought I was following his brief and that he was referring to their general resistance to disease and infection. However, as he continued I realised with a quiet jolt that he was talking of crowd control. The numbers travelling were now huge, and threatened to overwhelm the support services. Panic was liable to break out if the refugees thought they were to be denied access to their dream in the west. Already there had been a few `regrettable' incidents at the Soviet-run refugee camps to the south-east of the city; a repetition in the American or British sectors would be both tragic and politically embarrassing. Did I understand?
He seemed to assume that I would, not even glancing up at my vigorously nodding head. `... And the Russians. Well ...'
This time he did face me, rolling his eyes in mock panic, drawing a deep breath. Vesey was a large man, in his early forties, almost as broad as he was tall, his physical presence imposing. His voice sounded as if it had a Southern twang to it, and I imagined he must be a Texan, a country boy reared on a rich diet of beefsteaks, corn and buttermilk. I turned out to be wrong. He would later tell me, over a midnight whisky and with an illogical pride, just how hard his upbringing had been, in a steel-town, somewhere north, near Chicago. He was now nodding at me, I didn't have a clue what he was getting at.
`The Russians are suspicious about everything, and everything we do. So let's not give them anything to be suspicious about. Agreed?'
I agreed, still bewildered.
`Thanks, Rob. I knew you'd understand. Now, you're a young man, I know you'll want to get out and explore, and ... heh heh ... have your fun ... heh heh ...'. As he laughed I noticed his teeth, small for such a face but perfectly even. `... But I'm afraid all that will have to wait for later. From now on I want you to confine yourself to this base in the evenings and to make your way straight back if you're ever out at another camp. They watch everything. You might also keep an eye out for any situation where you might be ... vulnerable ... and remember to watch who you get friendly with. These are interesting times ... Okay?'
He was smiling at me, his naturally tight and aggressive face trying to look amicable. Behind him, incongruously, in this barren wooden shed, hung an American flag, like a prop from a stage set.
`So where you from, Rob, Scotland?'
This was the second time he had called me Rob. I wondered whether to correct him. Was that what he had on the form or was this a friendly abbreviation?
`Yes. Helensburgh. On the west coast.'
`And that's where you did your medical training?'
`Well, Glasgow University; originally chemistry but I switched to medicine when the war broke out. They had an accelerated course ...'
He cut me short. `Best doctors in the world, Scots. Apart from American ones.'
The smile at his own joke waned as he studied the form now in his hand.
`Ever been a Communist, member of the Communist Party, or any group having associations with Communists?'
The notion made me start. Communism hadn't reached Helensburgh, the only association I'd ever been in was the Boys' Brigade — was that on his form?
`I know you haven't, Rob. It says here on this damn paper that I've got to ask.'
Another unconvincing smile. 'And you speak German. It's just great to have you with us, sure could do with your help, but remember what I said. Hut 107.'
I was puzzled by his last remark. I had not studied German for nearly ten years — where did he get his information from? Again I held back the urge to correct him, somehow not wanting to disappoint.
`You're in Hut 107. Why don't you go get settled and we'll take it from there.'
It was then that I saluted, in between gathering up kit-bag, coat and freshly-stamped papers, and tumbled out of the room with all the poise of a harassed schoolboy, already late for his next lesson.
It would take daylight to reveal how much of a prison my new surroundings really were. The base was in the Gershalt district, in what was to become East Berlin. The Russians had already laid claim to the area, but provision had been made for an Allied medical team to be stationed there because of its proximity to the nearby transit camps. Vesey was right, the Russians were suspicious of everything we did, and had erected a daunting perimeter fence around the compound, ostensibly to 'protect' us. For the next six months, I was to feel as securely in quarantine as my new charges.
Daylight, however, was still twelve hours away when I made my clumsy exit from Vesey's administrative cabin in search of Hut 107. A frustrating search lay ahead; the huts were numbered in the order they were erected, not by location. Not all huts were for accommodation, some had been supply holds which had been lifted lock, stock and barrel when required elsewhere, and so a base with less than forty buildings had an infuriating system whereby identifying numbers were random and went as high as zoo. I eventually found 107 after half an hour.
I climbed the four stairs to the landing and edged in. The hut was a prefabricated type similar to Vesey's office; rectangular, maybe ten feet by twenty, wooden floor and whitewashed interior walls, with one small window by the door. A bare light bulb hung over a small table covered in books and papers which separated the two parallel single camp beds. A man was lying on one of them, propped up on his side, evidently engrossed in the book lying open on the bed. He looked up with a mixture of wariness and disdain.
I dropped my bags and offered him my hand.
`Robert Watt. Pleased to meet you.'
He was still for a second.
He sighed, unenthusiastically offering his hand. `A jock. Arthur Lee.'
He returned to his book; he was a thin man, balding, with a ginger-brown moustache and pale complexion, the sort ready to erupt in freckles at the merest hint of sun. Older than me, maybe mid-forties, giving every sign of being both languidly sullen and highly strung. I thought that perhaps he was perturbed at the thought of sharing with someone half his age. Whatever, he seemed reluctant to initiate any conversation.
`So ... how long have you been here, Arthur?' I scanned around for somewhere to house my belongings.
`Too bloody long.'
The only chest of drawers was on his side of the room. I dumped my kit-bag in front of the other bed, and sat down on it.
`I've just met Colonel Vesey, gave me my briefing. Seems alright. Nice man.'
His eye remained on his book.
`Really? I think he's a cunt. You know he's not even a bloody doctor? What does that tell you about our cosy little set-up then, eh? Asked if you could help out with his "special problem", did he? Mention any secret trips east?'
I was too shocked by his language to take notice of the questions. The only time I'd heard swearing like that it was delivered in a heavy Glaswegian accent — workmen and labourers arguing outside the rougher pubs on a Friday night. Arthur Lee didn't speak with any kind of accent at all; his was an educated, `neutral' tone, one that would be described as `middle class' nowadays.
`What do you mean?'
This time he did look up. `What do I mean? What do you think I bloody mean? Why did you volunteer for this, what were you expecting to find when you came here?'
He had lost me again.
`I didn't volunteer ... I was assigned straight from induction camp.'
He turned away, groaning.
`Oh bloody hell! They don't even want to pretend any more!'
He lifted his book to cover his face and lay motionless, arms folded across his chest. I hung my coat on the back of the door and pulled out some items from my bag - a hairbrush, razor and toiletry bag, pyjamas which I tucked underneath the lumpy pillow. All done in silence.
At last he stirred, getting to his feet and pulling out his coat from under mine. He opened the door, paused and turned round, the cold air blowing in as he spoke.
`You eaten? That hut over there, sixty-four, the large one. Canteen hut. Starts serving for us in five minutes. Five minutes, alright? Yank food, thank God. Only decent thing about them.'
He strolled off, banging the door behind him. I knew he was lying when I arrived there, five minutes later as briefed, and saw him finishing off his meal. He just hadn't wanted me anywhere near him. By the time I had queued up and been served my meal he was off again, and I sat down to eat alone.
There were about twenty others in the room, and about six tables. I placed myself at the end of a four-seat table where two other men were grunting monosyllabically as they progressed through their stew. I smiled politely, unable to hear if the conversation was in English or not. The gesture was ignored, and I felt my ears burn with embarrassment. The rest of the meal passed uneventfully, the stew a lumpy indistinguishable mix of browns and greys, but edible all the same. As I ate, steam billowed out of the large steel vat, making the air one breathed taste the same as the food itself.
As I contemplated my last remaining mouthful of coffee I heard a female voice mentioning my name, the sound distant, ethereal, as if I was dreaming. I lifted the cup and was startled to see the face of a young nursing auxiliary looming over me, close enough to kiss.
`Robert? Hello! I'm Joyce, Joyce Redford. We've all been looking forward to your arrival. Hope you play bridge!'
It wasn't a particularly pretty face. All the features were large and rather squeezed into the available space; teeth, lips, nose and eyes all jostling for prominence. I noticed that the glasses, through which she stared rather imploringly, had thick lenses. She wore no make up.
`Yes. Yes, of course.' I tried to cover my discomfort, hurriedly wiping away any remnants of gravy from my mouth. I felt embarrassed again. It might not have been beautiful, but it was the only friendly face I had seen all day. Somehow, I wanted to repay her interest with a more animated reply than the one I had given.
`Super! We've been dying to get a new set together for simply ages!'
`Well, I can't claim to be an expert, or even particularly good.'
`That's alright! None of the gang are too brilliant either.'
There was an excitable, gushy tone to her voice, the words coming out in gallops followed by pauses as she contemplated the next jolly barrage.
`Geoff ... Geoff Marlow, he played for his church, in leagues I mean, but the rest of us are pretty average, it'll be good to get some new blood. Penny's not bad though, all the trumps as they say! Do you play the same rules in Scotland?'
`I think so. I can't see why it would be different.'
`Well super ... no problems there then!' she jumped back in, probably realising how inane the question was. It was the first time she mentioned anything related to my personal background, and it was the only time she would. It said it all about our future relationship that we then went on to discuss our respective understanding of the rules of bridge rather than anything connected to my arrival, or to our situation in that canteen and the work of the unit, or even to the war that had just ended.
Joyce eventually gave me another hut number, 51, where I would rejoin her later that night, together with other similar spirits, and sit through three hours of tedious card playing. I have nothing against the English but that night I began to understand how such an unprepossessing race had successfully colonised half the world. I imagined all the other bridge parties that had gone on and were going on at that moment in huts scattered wherever the English had roamed. From desert to jungle, tropics to ice-caps, they would be playing as we were. And as the natives looked on and listened to the good-natured yet stifling conversation that accompanied the cards, they would be too dumbfounded to offer anything but the most placid resistance.
Joyce's exaggerated yawn about half past ten was the cue to wrap the session up. The room was tidied, with tables and chairs stacked to the side and ashtrays emptied, and for a while everyone stood around wishing each other goodnight without actually making a move to leave. I was completely spent and ready for sleep but didn't want to be first to go. For one thing I wasn't sure I could find my way back to 107. It was Joyce who again led.
`Coming?' she said, opening the door on the outside world.
Posted March 27, 2013