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  • Simon Howard

ENGLISH THANATOPSIS

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

Somewhere in the frozen garden, beyond the dark trees, a wounded peacock screamed in anguish. Massive pyramids of box stood like a great wall, black against the moon and trembling when the wind shook their bulk, as though the peacock had brushed past them and set up a chain reaction while staggering by, trailing its blood in the frosty grass. They even seemed to shake with anger, like the Furies…

Beneath the porch of the huge house, across its mighty threshold, lay the body of a well-bred gun-dog, broken almost in two by the force of a shotgun blast. In the drawing room two aristocratic parents lay butchered by their only son who, in his view, had judged and executed them for the crimes they had committed against him.

All passion spent, his royal moment passed, David Landor was seated in a crimson armchair, sipping whisky from a heavy glass. In his distorted mind he could already feel the weight of outraged loyalty forming ranks against him: the establishment, whatever that was; his parents’ tenantry, the aristocracy, the outraged morality of every class, the press, the police… The list would be endless. The tabloids, to use one of their own clichés, would have a field day. Everyone would, of course, except him. He listened to the wind rustling in the box hedges which ringed the house.

A dark-haired man of 34, David had the air of one who has known great buying power during his life. He’d also known the loss of it, which was part of the problem and, through the many failings of his personality, had devised poor remedies to make up for this. Wearing one of his best Savile Row suits, his old school tie and a fine pair of simple gold cuff-links, he’d dressed for the occasion before racing down from London in a Porsche borrowed from a friend.

As he sipped the whisky, David saw, through the cut glass at the bottom of his tumbler, his father’s face looking surprised. The pattern of the glass broke up the old man’s features and seemed to separate his silver-topped head from the rest of his body. David lowered the tumbler again, noticing that the head and body were still divided. Then he remembered how the force of the shotgun’s blast had lifted the head from the trunk, shattering the neck and most of the shoulders. Emerging from the crater where Mr Landor’s collar had been, his Guards’ tie lay in tatters across his blood-spattered breast.

Taking another sip of the excellent whisky, David shifted his view and, as he looked through the golden liquid smearing the glass while it trickled down again, saw his mother impaled on the corner of a 17th century walnut chest, with her womb blown out.

Not for the first time in his life, David began to feel what people called the consequences of an action. As he thought about it, he tried to swallow but found that his throat was completely dry. A gentle shudder rippled through the whole of his body, making his organs tighten. More than at any time since his childhood he felt the overwhelming loss of his innocence. The process had begun long, long ago in this great house.

Adjusting his starched white cuff and its beautifully simple cuff-link, he stood up and poured himself another glass of whisky. Holding the decanter by its neck between his middle fingers, he grasped the stopper with the forefinger and thumb of the same hand, for a moment simply feeling their weight. Then he dropped the decanter onto the mahogany table, making a crashing sound – though the glass was too strong to break – and thrust home the stopper with a thud. The noises resounded in his ears for a while, since they were the only traces of sound in this enormous, empty house. (It was the staff’s night off, and his teenage sister Julia was travelling in Italy with a friend.)

The peacock was silent by now, presumably dead somewhere in the garden. When even the memory of the sounds had passed, David slapped his hand against the table and listened to the echo ricocheting off the far corners of the huge room. He looked around at his ancestors’ portraits on the walls and the several family photographs in silver frames.

The consequences of an action. And the sequence of events and feelings which had led up to it…

Sitting down again, he recalled the highlights of his shoddy life: the points of contact, which were rare; and the loss of it, which was not. He was always considered aloof, even when he was behaving wildly at parties. There was a separateness about him, as though the damage had started early in his life. Or was his isolation inevitable, as some people thought, due to his privileged position?

In this room he had celebrated winning his places at Oxford and Sandhurst before joining the Guards. Both family and staff had toasted the dashing young man with the perfect career ahead of him. And in this room he had suffered the vigil of shame which followed his being cashiered from the army. Here his parents read his Colonel’s letter.

‘This is a disgraceful case,’ it said. ‘You have abused the trust of everyone in the battalion – officers, NCOs and guardsmen alike – and shown yourself to be utterly unfit to hold a commission in HM forces, and for whom there is no longer a place in this regiment…’

Humiliation indeed. In certain sections of British society you can’t fall any further than that. And Julia, as David’s only sibling, couldn’t fall much further either, or know greater embarrassment. She would be almost grateful for her failed marriage later, to help her bury just a little of her shame.

In this vast room so much news of his various disgraces had been received. He remembered the years of high life: staying for months on end at Claridge’s; treating Europe like a playground for him and his glamorous set, and the Mediterranean as a lake; living in a kind of paradise.

Followed by the fall: the prison terms he served after the perfect life had crumbled, when his promise had finally been denied forever. In reality he had been seeking the same goal in both worlds – in the public life of his first, privileged world, and in the shame of his downfall – joy through oblivion. Once, visited in his high security psychiatric hospital by Julia, he had tried to explain this to her, but it was a concept too far, just too foreign for a simple, trusting mind like hers.

He recalled his school days, when his enormous income had often bought the indignities of others. Love had fought its first battle there, and been defeated by him so completely that it never dared to take him on again. At sixteen, a beautiful boy called Alex loved him, an emotion that David saw as weakness, and one that he would never let himself suffer from. One moonlit night, he abandoned the weeping, pleading Alex kneeling naked in the shower room. Later that night the miserable boy hanged himself from one of the cisterns.

For the first time in his life David, sitting here with his murdered parents in front of him, felt the terrible loss of love. Actually felt it, the loss of the thing he had never experienced in any of his many affairs with women. He couldn’t remember any of their faces. Not one. Not a single girlfriend, whore or mistress appeared before him now as he sipped his whisky. Instead, only blurred shapes drifted around his memory.

He thought about the buying power he had known. Waves of it, appearing now almost like a tidal sea rushing towards him. And the terrifying stillness when those waves had calmed, the buying power removed – leaving him stranded and empty. The courses of action he had taken then, and their awful consequences. While he felt the rhythm of this sea at work within him, sitting here in the vast drawing room, what seemed like a single piece of driftwood bobbed towards him as he lay there on the shore…

Gradually an image became clear, and he saw the boy David, aged ten, weeping, his earlier hysteria having been spent and replaced by despair. Drenched in water, he was crouching at the top of the cellar steps and replaying the solicitor’s words in his mind.

‘ …and, in addition to all this, the residue of my estate, I also leave to my grandson David for his immediate use the sum of ten thousand pounds, knowing that his parents will advise him sensibly on how to spend it…’

Buying power. This was his first opportunity: his grandfather’s enormous fortune to look forward to, and a huge sum for a ten-year-old’s immediate use. This was the first money of his own, and it provided him with a chance to give. He could buy presents for everyone. He suggested it at once, but they all declined, said no to young David. ‘No, no – of course not,’ they said. ‘It’s all for you. Spend it on yourself, like Grandfather wanted…’

He felt hemmed in, trapped, claustrophobic. They wouldn’t let him give, and he wondered if that meant he could never be free. He thought with both the fog and the clarity of a ten-year-old, and he felt that there was no chance of crossing the huge divide. Something snapped within, and he was lost forever. ‘I want to buy things for you!’ he screamed hysterically. Uncomprehending, they were desperately concerned about the boy. ‘David, you mustn’t,’ they said. ‘Now stop it. We don’t want anything. Just calm down…’

The talking failed, and David became more hysterical. In the awful panic, he heard his mother utter one last word to Jenny, a worried housemaid.

‘Water…’

Jenny made for the door, but David ran after her.

‘Jenny, let me buy you a nice new coat!’ he screamed, tugging at her apron.

She pulled herself free and vanished through the doorway. Dizzy, David turned back to his parents, pleading.

‘I don’t want the money! I want to spend it on you! Please let me – PLEASE!’

Jenny rushed back into the drawing room with a jug of water in her hands, followed by the cook and a kitchen-maid. David’s father took the jug and threw the water over his son, who started to choke amid his sobs. He saw everyone staring at him and cast his eyes down…


***


‘…will advise him sensibly on how to spend it…’

The words seemed to scrape inside his brain as he sat, drenched and sobbing, on the top step of the cellar stairs. He thought about an injured rabbit he’d tried to drown in the lake three years before, hoping to put it out of its misery. He remembered its ears pressed back against its exhausted body, the corners of its mouth turned down and the eyes too tired and afraid to move. Blood from its wound ran with the water in the lake. David was panicking and close to tears.

‘Oh, please die,’ he pleaded. ‘For God’s sake, die. You’re so hurt. Just die, please don’t suffer…’

Quietly he let himself slide down the stairs one step at a time. He could hear the voices of concern on the other side of the cellar door, which he had locked. Gradually the voices became fainter, until at last an absolute silence hung over the dark cellar, a silence which seemed to clothe and even caress him and which soon began to feel completely comfortable and familiar, like a parent.

He started to play down here in the darkness, and knew it was a world he’d never leave, a silence from which he would never return.


***


Seated in the crimson armchair, David sipped his whisky, drumming his nails against the table beside him. Steadily he altered the rhythm, so that all four fingers and thumb hit the mahogany at the same time. In his hazy mind the tapping became the sound of an axe cutting into oak, somewhere in the wood...

David was eleven, walking down a path between the vast trees. At the centre of the wood, where several paths converged, stood the woodman’s son, John, who was the same age, and one of life’s victims. In his grubby hands he held a dying starling.

‘Let me see,’ said David, who was curious and wanted to share the experience with John.

Fear and resentment blazing in his eyes, John turned and fled with the injured bird, certain that David would kill it. David started to chase him along the path but, even as he ran along behind him, focusing on John’s dirty clothes, he didn’t really know why he was chasing him.

Suddenly, into the path stepped the woodman, Bowen, axe in hand, ready to protect his son. When he saw that it was David chasing after John, he lowered the axe and stared at him. Even at the age of eleven David knew that Bowen’s look of resentment went far beyond the immediate and the personal. But it also gave the aristocratic boy a sense of power: he felt like he was riding a strong horse, restraining massive force through the reins and cutting the beast’s mouth with the vicious bit as he made it obey him.

He held their stares for a while, then turned and ambled back along the path, not exactly happy, but certainly more knowledgeable about the status quo.


***


Putting down the cut-glass tumbler with a bang, David got up and walked over to a Georgian bureau. He opened a drawer, took out a scrapbook and began to read a cutting.

‘HIGH SHERIFF’S WOODMAN JOINS POLICE. John Bowen, until recently employed as head woodman on the estate of the county’s High Sheriff, Mr George Landor, is to join the police force. Mr Bowen, 21, grew up on the Landor estate, where his father, the late Mr William Bowen, was woodman before him…’

David slammed the book shut and closed his eyes.


***


The sound of whipping echoes around the farmyard. In the shadows of an old barn John, aged twelve, is stretched naked across the arm of an old plough, crying and biting his lip as David flogs him with a piece of shredded bamboo. Blood streaks his buttocks, and splinters of bamboo lodge in his ripped young flesh. A bit of bamboo flies off, and David bends down to pick it out of the sawdust scattered on the ground. Then, holding it in his hand, he approaches John’s grubby, shaking flesh and cuts three deep lines in his arm.

‘That’s my mark,’ he says, almost caressing John. ‘It means you’re my property.’

John pisses himself with fear. David unzips his trousers.


***


David opened the scrapbook again and read:

‘PC PROMOTED SERGEANT…’

He smiled, remembering the three marks he’d cut into John’s arm. Then he noticed inside the drawer a loose cutting from The Times.

‘HIGH SHERIFF’S SON ORDERED TO KEEP OFF PARENTS’ ESTATE,’ it read. ‘A High Court judge today ordered a former Guards officer to stay away from his parents’ property…’

David stared at the cutting for a few moments before closing the drawer and sitting down again in the crimson armchair. He picked up the telephone and dialled a number. A voice answered. David spoke calmly.

‘Hello, could I speak to the Chief Constable, please?’

As he waited, he was struck by a small irony. His father, as High Sheriff, had been responsible for the comfort of visiting circuit judges.

‘Hello?’ said a new voice at the other end of the line.

‘Hello, Sir James,’ said David. ‘David Landor, here. Look, I’m afraid something bad has happened at the house… Yes, I’m at home… I know, but I am anyway. Now, the thing is, you’d better send some people over. It’s my parents… Yes, they’re dead… Yes… I won’t go into it now. I’ll wait here…’

He listened to the Chief Constable who, once he’d recovered from the initial shock, became a model of efficiency – which David, as a former soldier, greatly appreciated. He’d been dreading the idea of keen young police officers bearing down on him unrestrained. He had confidence in Sir James.

‘Good. I’m most grateful, Sir James. Sorry to cause you so much trouble. I’ll just sit here and wait…’

David replaced the receiver and poured himself another glass of whisky. He didn’t have to worry about getting his story right, as he was going to admit everything. He looked around the room again and walked over to a tall window. Drawing back the heavy curtains, he saw that the dawn was breaking. A glowing light was starting to cut across the sky. The wind had dropped, and the surface of the lake glistened. He drank his whisky and waited for the sound of sirens.

At last he heard them far away. Leaning his forehead against the cold glass of the window-pane he realised that his life had really ended many years ago – long, long before he had moved out of this house as a young man, when Julia was just a child growing up so timidly within it and longing for his occasional visits before the court case which resulted from his growing violence against his parents.

Appearing through the gateway at the top of the avenue were two gleaming white police cars, their blue lights reflecting on the surface of the lake. He wondered what the officers would think as the house loomed so massively ahead of them. When they pulled up outside the great porch, he saw Inspector John Bowen lead his men up the stone steps, past the dead gun-dog, towards the front door. He moved away from the window and met them in the hall. Seeing John inside the house once more made him feel a sense of peace, almost a return to innocence.

Later, when he was driven away by the CID for questioning at the police station, he looked back and saw John standing at the top of the steps, in possession of the old place, and was quite content to leave the house in his care. The police car enveloped him and shone like a white avenging angel as it drove along the avenue. More police cars and an ambulance approached from the other direction, and the lake reflected a sea of spinning blue analeptic light as David Landor was taken away to be held, perhaps forever, within England’s protective bosom.


***


The pyramids of box now stand quite still, paler in the early morning light which cuts across them sideways. Between each one hang fresh cobwebs in which drops of dew are illuminated like beautiful pearls. The Furies have left, and the great hedges are now at rest. Beyond them, undiscovered so far, the peacock lies stiff on the frost-hard grass.


*****








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