Thursday, September 25, 2014

the forgetful spy

At first I completely miss the house, taking a right turn into an uneven, unadopted road, thickly overhung with trees and shrubs, the ditches either side threatening to turn the ambulance over if I misjudge the width. But the road runs out with nothing more beyond than wild and open country. I struggle to turn round, come back out onto the main road, park up on the left as close to the wall as I can. It’s only then we notice there’s an old house set back from the corner of the junction. We go to take a look.
The Clutterby residence must once have been a fine and imposing Georgian country house. The arc of its gravel drive is thickly overgrown now, so the feeling is one of walking into some dark and elliptical cave. The house rises up in front of us, the main door reached by a series of steeply-banked steps whose terracotta tiles are patchily green with moss now, weeds struggling up through the cracked joints. An elegant porch at the top, a wide front door, whose leaded windows are protected behind a delicate filigree of fleur de lys.
We’ve just reached the very top step when the door opens.
‘Can I help you?’ says Mr Clutterby.
‘Hello. It’s the ambulance.’
‘Yes. May I ask what this is concerning?’
‘Did you call for help?’
‘No. I did not.’
‘We had a call to this address. An eighty-seven-year-old man with chest pain.’
‘Who did?’
‘We did. The ambulance.’
He raises his eyebrows and shakes his head sadly.
‘I hardly see how this concerns me.’
‘Is there anyone else who lives here?’
‘No. I live alone. Who did you say called you?’
‘Well – if it’s not you, then... we’re sorry to have troubled you.’
‘Please. Do come in. I’m curious to know what all this is about.’
‘Are you unwell? Do you have chest pain?’
‘Look. Please – do come inside and sit down. I’m fascinated to know more about this. You say somebody called you?’
‘It could be a mistake. Have you had the ambulance out to you before?’
‘No. Why would I? Please – do come inside and let’s discuss this further.’
He shuffles back into the gloom.
There’s something vague about Mr Clutterby, beyond the usual distractions of old age. Something indistinct, drifting, poorly-held, like smoke in a sealed jar. If it wasn’t for his beautifully pressed three-piece suit and tie, he might not be there at all.  
We follow him inside.
The house is cavernous. A long hallway leading off into darkly shuttered rooms, draped chandeliers, the dull glimmer of gilt frames on walls. Cobwebs in unreachable corners. And a grand staircase that over the centuries must have resounded with a thousand buckled shoes, riding boots, school slippers and polished brogues; now, the only sound it knows is the hum of Mr Clutterby’s stair-lift, slowly following the curving rail to the silent rooms on the first floor.
Mr Clutterby has established himself in the drawing room, in a plush, scallop-backed chair, his legs folded, his elbows planted on the armrests and his liver-spotted hands linked together in a pensive arch beneath his nose. Through the window behind him the leaves of great shrubs crowd up against the glass; the room is furnished with ancient, elegantly veneered furniture; above the grand fireplace, the oval portrait of a lady in a plump silk dress and a floppy hat, a closed fan in her lap, a spaniel sitting at her feet looking up at her whilst she stares back at the painter with a languorous smile. There’s a resemblance between her and Mr Clutterby. I can imagine him putting out his hand, helping the woman out of the picture, and the two of them walking slowly out to the empty ballroom across the hall.
‘Now, tell me again what this is all about,’ he says.
The situation is suddenly clear to us, though. On a bow-legged table in the middle of the room is a yellow folder, stuffed full of ambulance report forms and ECGs.
‘May I?’
‘Of course. Be my guest. Now – I’m slightly confused by all this, but I have to say it’s nice to have a bit of company.’
The forms are all dated this year, some thirty or forty, all reporting the same thing. STML: short term memory loss, along with vascular dementia and some other, more minor ailments. Some of the forms describe the personal situation in great detail – how the family have been trying to persuade Mr Clutterby to move, the different care arrangements they’ve tried, none particularly effective or long-lasting. He’s at risk, of course. They’ve set up a CCTV camera in the hall, pointing at the door. Alarm buttons, carefully worded notices pinned up here and there.
‘This is the family home,’ says Mr Clutterby, unlacing his fingers to gesture around him. ‘We brought the children up here – when we weren’t travelling, of course. I was in the diplomatic service and we lived abroad a good deal. The middle east and so on. I used my contacts to gather information for the government, which of course is another way of saying I was a spy. An unlikely one, it has to be said. Six feet two in broad moustaches, suits from Savile Row. But there you are. My wife helped considerably. She was much less conspicuous. She looked more Germanic.’
 We run through some obs and take an ECG, all of which Mr Clutterby accepts with a slightly sad,  saintly passivity.
‘If you think it necessary’ he says. ‘It’s awfully good of you to bother. But as you can see, I’m on my own here. Ever since my wife died. We brought the children up here – when we weren’t abroad, of course. The diplomatic service,’ he says. ‘Six feet two in broad moustaches, suits from Savile Row, gathering information for the government. A spy, if you will. My wife helped, behind the scenes. She had a more Germanic look to her, you see. We met when I was a simple gunner.’
‘A gunner?’
‘Yes. In the artillery. We met at some sort of dance. In Kensington. But then I transferred over to military intelligence, learned a spot of Arabic. Enough to get by, and so on. I was in the diplomatic service. Six feet two in broad moustaches. Suits from Savile Row.’
Rae interrupts him to ask some medical questions; he waves them away impatiently.
‘Yes, yes, this is all very well,’ he sniffs. ‘But what I really want to know is – who sent you? Why are you here? It’s awfully nice of you to come and see me, and of course I do appreciate your company. But I fail to see what the problem is.’
‘It says in your records you suffer from short term memory loss.’
‘Well, my dear girl,’ he laughs. ‘When one has lived as long as I have, one tends to be a little forgetful. I’ve always prided myself on my powers of recall. I worked for the diplomatic service, gathering information for the government. A spy, to put it rather baldly....’
‘It looks like you called for help because you had chest pain, but then forgot about it. Do you think that sounds likely?’
‘No. I think it sounds highly unlikely.’
‘Do you have chest pain at the moment?’
‘No. I’m quite all right, thank you. Now look. What’s this all about?’
‘You see – I think people are worried about you living here all on your own, Mr Clutterby. If you can’t remember things from moment to moment, you’re at risk from unscrupulous people coming to the door and taking advantage of you.’
‘There was a chap the other day.’
‘What chap?’
‘I don’t know who he was. I certainly hadn’t called him. A sallow, shifty-looking individual. When I asked him what he wanted he said he’d come to see that the carpets matched. I said I wasn’t interested. He said he was coming in anyway. I said not a chance and I closed the door. He swore at me. He called me a fucking old dinosaur or some such, and sloped off down the drive. But you see, I’m not afraid of these people. I had training in self-defence.’
‘In the diplomatic service?’
‘Yes. They taught me how to stop a fellow in his tracks. Like this...’
He makes a palsied karate chop in the air.
‘Hah! Across the throat. Most effective, because they don’t see it coming, d’you see?’
‘You shouldn’t look so surprised. I was in the diplomatic service, you know. A spy, if you will. Gathering information for the government. Six feet two in broad moustaches. My wife helped, too. She looked more Germanic.’


jacksofbuxton said...

Not quite George Smiley there Spence.

tpals said...

Before the conversation I imagined it would be exactly the sort of house to send the orphan children of a distant relative who would have fabulous adventures there. That idea quickly faded.

Spence Kennedy said...

Jack - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Moustaches

tpals - Definitely a touch of Haversham about the place! Terribly poignant, and eerie. Very much a sense of having been left behind (self-imposed or otherwise).

Cheers for the comments!

Cassandra said...

How novel. (Pun intended.) Cluttersby even SOUNDS like a fictional, genteel family name. The story, though, starts off sounding rather V.C. Andrews… then suddenly veers into "Finding Nemo" territory. It must have been like trying to lasso eels to get him to come to a conclusion and stick to it! At least without referencing broad mustaches, Sevile Row suits, and Germanic wives.

Spence Kennedy said...

I had to look up V C Andrews.
So do you mean gothic, with the old, empty house &c?
And then Dory from Finding Nemo. (Great character - great film)
He was so repetitious! (Did I already say that?) :)