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Watcher in the Shadows
By Geoffrey Household
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Geoffrey Household
All rights reserved.
I look back on my course of action as lunacy; and yet at the time it seemed the only way out. Pride, probably. One can never quite escape from one's ancestors. Old Cunobel understood that. But there was a perverted common sense in it, too. The police admitted afterwards that if I had continued to live my normal life – and since I had to work to eat what else could I do? – they would not have been able to protect me.
Ian Parrow saw the position as that of a hunter who is trying to protect some terrified native village from a maneater. It is no use to cordon the place and post a rifle up every tree. The man-eater simply observes the whole preparation – tempering its disappointment with contempt – and goes away until everyone is sick of the whole business. Then it returns.
In my case there was no one to protect except myself, terrified enough, God knows, for an entire village. But the principle was the same. I had to hunt the poor brute down alone, on foot and on horse, and give him every chance to show himself.
Since the late nineteen-forties I have earned an obscure but very satisfying living as a zoologist, specializing in the life cycles of the smaller European mammals. Experience from youth onwards has fitted me for patient work out of doors in all weather, and I have even learned to enjoy the long hours at my desk, comparing and compiling statistics. English is not my native tongue, but I speak it without accent. As for writing it, the international jargon of scientists generally eases my task. That will not help me here. But I take it I cannot go far wrong if I write as I talk.
On the morning of 20 May 1955, I was working on some weak but fascinating evidence of delayed implantation of the blastocyst in the red squirrel – already proved for the roe deer and the badger – when I heard the double knock of the postman at my front door. It was before eleven and I was alone – thank God! – in the house.
The French windows of my study were wide open. Before leaving the room I closed them to prevent the fresh west wind blowing all the papers off my desk. Then there was a delay of another half minute while the catch of the window gave trouble. Meanwhile the postman, I imagine, was waiting impatiently to deliver his small parcel. When at last I walked up the passage from my study to the front door, its panels disintegrated in front of me.
That was my first impression – through the eyes. Though I was only some fifteen feet away from the door I observed it separating into its original planks before I was conscious of noise and vapour.
The lock had jammed, and there was enough door left, except around the letter box, to obstruct the way out. I ran into the dining-room and out through its now glassless window. On the path lay the upper and lower halves of the postman, joined together – if one could call it joined – by the local effects of the explosion.
The red Post Office van stood at the gate. My very suburban street was filling with people, mostly women. I remember wondering where they all came from. I have a habit of distracting my mind from whatever shocks it by a moment of unrelated speculation. Did those morning houses always hold such an intolerable crowd of untidy human beings behind their closed doors?
The more sensitive stood at my garden gate only for seconds. The rest stayed to stare, gradually infiltrating into the garden. None of them approached the postman. I do not think the reason was the public's callous lack of initiative. It was so obvious that the postman needed no help.
I tore down one of the dining-room curtains with a nervous jerk and covered the body. All the intruders were firing questions at me. I could only reply that I hadn't seen, didn't know, couldn't explain. I vaguely expected some sort of hostile demonstration. Of course there was none. That horrified little crowd assumed that the postman's death was as meaningless as a road accident.
At last a policeman arrived; then, with very creditable speed, a patrol car and a van of police from the borough station. Like a team of well-trained, fatherly sheep-dogs they handled the gaping women, the body and the search for every scrap of paper from the presumed parcel.
I disliked both them and their uniforms. At that time – I think I am over it now – police, even the kindly English police, made me as unreasonably impatient as some ardent pacifist bristling at the approach of a battalion behind its band. I knew of course that it was absurd to resent the obedience of a sheep on an occasion when one could be nothing else and I tried to avoid too aristocratic a coldness in answering their quick, courteous questions. I doubt if I succeeded, but they put my manner down to the effect of shock upon a retiring scientist.
The ambulance came and departed. A policeman was posted on my front gate. I was offered a lift to the station which I accepted, smiling at what seemed to me hypocritical politeness. The detective was hurt. He explained that it really was an offer and that many people were shy at being taken away immediately in a police car when they had witnessed crime or accident; they preferred to make their way to the station independently in order to avoid gossip among the neighbours.
Once in the superintendent's office I was more at ease. The face above the uniform was that of a hard-worked accountant or civil servant. He was a sensible and kindly man of about my own age, and he made it plain at once that he thought me the intended victim of the explosion and in no way responsible for it.
'You know of no motive, Mr Dennim?' he asked. 'No enemies at all?'
I did not. It never occurred to me that anyone could think me worth murdering. But I had been half prepared for some nightmare accusation of blowing up red squirrels and bagging a postman instead.
'Any domestic cause which could help us?'
'You mean a jealous husband or something of that sort?'
'Just any irregularity,' he said quietly in the tone of a father confessor.
'Not on my part. And I am certain you can rule out my aunt.'
'She is unmarried?'
I saw the way his mind was working and suggested that he had better get his own impression of Aunt Georgi.
'She is a widow,' I warned him, 'and of very sane, determined and individual. character.'
'Have you any theory of what actually happened, Mr Dennim?'
I had and I gave it to him. When I did not answer the postman's knock, he tried to force the parcel through my letter box instead of leaving it with the next-door neighbours or taking it back for a later delivery. My letter box had a bigger opening than usual; a good-sized book, for example, would fit in. The explosive was probably meant to go off when the string was undone or an interior lid was lifted. But what happened was that the parcel jammed in the box – which might have broken the acid container or released the spring of the trigger device.
I was so absorbed in explanation that I did not see I had given him a clue, harmless enough but inviting questions, to my past life.
'Never blown anyone up yourself, I suppose?' he asked with too forced a heartiness.
'Just an army course on how to do it,'
'You have never had any connexion with – well, any of these violent nationalist groups?'
'No. The parcel could not have been meant for me or my aunt at all.'
'But you said your letter box set it off.'
I told him that it must have been delivered in error, that either the sender got the house number wrong or the postman made a mistake. The street was correct. I picked up and handed over to the police a bit of blood-sodden brown paper which showed the last half of the street name in printed capitals.
'What do you know of your next-door neighbours?'
'We say good morning and comment on the tulips.'
'In your profession as a zoologist you have not come across anything which could provide a motive for putting you out of the way?'
'I fear my results are not sufficiently spectacular, superintendent. I am only a decided nuisance to one microbiologist, and even so he moderates his language when I pay him a drink.'
I tried to turn the conversation into the world of science where murder is rare. Presumably rare. After all, we have so many ways of making it appear death from natural causes. But the superintendent refused to be side-tracked.
'I gather you were in some branch of Intelligence,' he said. 'Are you sure there is no motive dating from that?'
'I cannot imagine one.'
'Would you care to tell me more?'
I took refuge in the Official Secrets Act and referred him to the War Office. Whatever they chose to tell him – it would certainly be one of those statements of bare facts which look revealing and are not – I knew he would keep to himself. But I was by no means sure that the police did not gossip about any curious stories which they discovered on their own. I did not want my past and former nationality to be known all over the district just because a postman had been killed at my front door. I think I was unjust, but there again my prejudice against police, any police, was at work.
The superintendent got his own back when I left him. I was thoroughly disconcerted by the sight of half a dozen newspapermen in and around the entrance to the station.
'What on earth am I to say to these fellows?' I appealed.
'There is not much I can teach you about keeping back information,' he answered dryly. 'I can only advise you not to make a mystery of yourself.'
In fact it was easy. I played the dull specialist in a dull profession who knew nothing, had noticed nothing and was outraged that there should have been anything out of the ordinary to notice. The representatives of the evening papers were completely taken in. What I said was not quotable either for its inanity or for any intelligent conjecture. Charles Dennim, a zoologist living quietly with his aunt, simply was not news.
Only one of the papers thought me worth a photograph.
Aunt Georgi declared it to be unrecognizable. I looked, she said, like a hangman who had taken to religion. With my face at rest, perhaps it was not very surprising that I should.
Georgina and I shared the house and our small incomes, saving each other from the cheap hotel which might otherwise have ruined our privacy and digestions. It was a natural partnership. We were both survivors from another age – a couple of dinosaurs, let us say – one of an older generation than the other, but both equally successful at persuading a society of little mammals that we were perfectly adjusted to it. As for ourselves, we endured each other in an unbroken state of deep affection and armed neutrality.
Georgina had the genial, positive manners of a trim little cavalry general, retired on a pension. When she wore a bowler hat and riding breeches she could almost pass as one. At the riding school where she was assistant mistress she had been, I understand, occasionally addressed by new pupils as 'Sir'. But never twice.
I met her on her way back from the school to prepare her for the shock of finding no downstairs windows and a policeman at the front gate. She took the news extremely well. It was to her one of those inexplicable happenings in an unreasonably excitable society at which a woman of character shrugs her shoulders. Only the actual absence of windows prevented her saying that the whole affair had been much exaggerated by the Press.
I was therefore surprised when, after dinner, she continued to show a too persistent curiosity. It was not fear. She was quite incapable of nervousness.
After I had made some of the polite but uninterested noises by which one assures a female companion, wife or aunt, that one is listening, she said:
'Charles, you are not to be deliberately stupid! Suppose that package had been meant to kill one of us?'
I laid down the evening paper and remarked that we did not know it was meant to kill anybody.
'Of course we do!'
'We do not. It might have been a packet of detonators which some damned fool sent through the post. One of our neighbours down the street or next door probably knows what caused the accident and isn't saying.'
'Which next door?'
'I cannot guess.'
'And what was it?'
'Dear Aunt Georgi, how the devil do I know? You have like all women a tendency to argue when there is no evidence to argue from.'
'And you, Charles,' she retorted, 'because the evidence was removed in an ambulance, try to believe that it was never there at all.'
That shot went home. I was so busy suppressing my own horrified disgust that I had also suppressed an uncomfortable whisper at the back of my mind. It had to be recaptured and thought out like the uneasiness which can spoil a morning until one traces it to a dream.
For the next two days nothing happened. Passers-by stared curiously at the house and at the builders who were repairing front door and windows, and continually discovering frames, gutters and plaster which had to be replaced. The superintendent telephoned once for no obvious reason. I continued to question the love life of the red squirrel. Georgina, jodhpured and tweed-coated, strode off every morning to the riding school, her straight back disapproving the vulgarity of crime and its publicity.
Only once did she approach the subject – obliquely, for she would never allow herself to be snubbed twice.
'It may interest you to know, Charles,' she said, 'that there is a new municipal sweeper on this road whose face I do not remember.'
I complimented her on being so observant, and added that there was another plainclothes cop frequently engaged in changing all four wheels of an old car on the waste ground at the corner of Acacia Avenue.
'They seem to think someone is in need of protection.'
'My own theory, Aunt Georgi, is that they suspect you of posting parcels to me.'
'Pah! Fact is – they don't know any more than we do!'
For the time being she did, I believe, give up any further idea that the parcel was meant for me. So did the superintendent. There were other claimants to the honour of being assassinated. My suburban street was long; still, I should never have guessed that in some three hundred respectable little houses there could be two people who thought themselves important enough to be murdered.
One was a television singer, momentarily resting. She gave the papers an incoherent story of a desperate lover. He really existed. Whenever the psychiatrists pronounced him harmless and returned him to his family, an enterprising publicity agent paid him a small salary. He could be trusted to create a diversion on the doorstep of any female entertainer. But his speciality was threatening suicide. He did not send bombs.
The other was a Cypriot who had a genuinely strong case – though the local police were not sure whether they were Greeks or Turks who thought the world better without him. It was the superintendent who told me all this. He must have had, as I expected, a resounding but reticent report on me from the War Office. He asked me to keep my supposedly experienced eyes open, and accepted my assurance that the parcel could not possibly have been addressed to me. Why shouldn't he? It stood to reason that if I was not confident I would be yammering for protection.
Now that both police and Aunt Georgi had ceased to bother me, my own doubts perversely began to grow. The time of that bomb's delivery pointed straight at me. An assassin who is not normally a criminal must surely take infinite care not to get the wrong man. The Cypriot might have opened his parcel while talking to a friend or his landlady. But if the sender wanted me and only me and if he knew the routine of the house he could be sure that I should be alone in it when the parcel postman called.
This suggested that I had been under close observation and might still be. If I were, some face which was familiar to me on my own street or station ought to turn up again on the Underground or on my usual routes to the London Library, to the Museum, to lunch. When in London I had become very much a creature of habit.
But I could not see a sign that I was followed. That was not surprising if my regular routine had already been checked. For example, it is not necessary for me to disturb an animal by following it about. After a period of patient observation I know what it is likely to be doing and where it is likely to be found at any given time.
I did not change my habits. It was not worth either the trouble or the reproving of myself for undue nervousness. I was still only admitting that it was possible, just faintly possible, that I had been the intended victim of that parcel.
Excerpted from Watcher in the Shadows by Geoffrey Household. Copyright © 2014 Geoffrey Household. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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