THE YEAR IS ALMOST OVER
“The feeling seemed to increase as I became more awake - some primal instinct warning of the presence of something predatory, something angry.”
A man's travels around Europe in the 1930s - curious tales of people's lives, detective stories, improbable science and the supernatural.
By Tim South
“Life is lived as a journey, but remembered as a collection of stories - and each story is least understood by the one who is in it.”
2. The Umbrella Lady
“They say that sooner or later she talks to every person in the world.”
3. Anatole and Little Frets.
“...some dark force against nature had been harnessed to animate the body into a state of evil intent.”
4. The Horsemen of Avallon
“After that the voices of men could be heard in the valley, and some of them seemed to be softly weeping.”
5. Low Season
“...through the cheap plaster and wallpaper, I began to hear someone talking softly.”
6. Par Avion
“I have never asked for power over people's lives. Every time I see these things I feel ill and haunted for days.”
7. The Skeptic.
“You see something that you cannot explain, yet you are too eager to grasp the quickest explanation that you can...”
8. Sleeping City
“...he began to talk of more trivial things, as if he was embarrassed at having told such personal matters to a stranger.”
9. The Mystery of the Missing Woodcutter.
“Now the village is living in fear, he can walk the roads at night, carrying his gruesome possession, without fear of discovery.”
10. The Case of the Portly Murderer.
“The answer lies with one small but crucial clue that has been left behind on the carriage.”
11. The Music Lover
“Love... And tragedy. How often the two seem to go together.”
12. Paris, Summer 1933
“Imagine that you're on your deathbed, and an angel grants you an extra half an hour to live!”
13. The Story of Corporal Wistremy at Waterloo
“...if something should happen to me, I beg you to destroy this letter, for the sake of my honour as a soldier.”
14. An Unwise Experiment.
“What question would you ask me, so that you would know it was me?”
15. How the Stone Lost its Soul
“...she replied that it was an old burial ground - 'since the Dreamtime' was how she put it...”
16. The Cork-Lined Box
“If I were killed, thrown overboard for the waiting sharks, who would find out?”
17. An Item of Such Rarity
“Tell me Mister Butler. Have you ever had to keep a secret?”
18. What the Mummy Told Me.
“His soul cried out in terror unknown to man, but his lips could not move an inch to save him.”
19. The Time Traveller
“People need something to hope for, Albert, they want to see that mankind can do great things.”
20. The Grinning Turk
“But he is alive, sir. Well, alive in a manner of speaking.”
21. I'm Still Here!
“...perhaps his rival had been sitting beside us throughout our conversation, and had written the message when Nathan wasn't looking.”
22. The Man-Eater of Nakuru
“He said that one such as she will always help those who can't help themselves.”
23. The Guests of the Duke.
“I think that sometimes you see things that others cannot. Am I right? Think about it, Mister Butler.”
24. Days in Florence
“Suddenly all I could think of was that I wanted that time of my life again, to go back, to be there again.”
“In that quick flash of light the creature sitting on the top of the cupboard was revealed...”
26. The Disappearance of a Girl in Amiens
“...even after twenty-seven years she was driven by the memory of her loss...”
27. The Eclipse Island Lighthouse
“But you say the light wasn't shining the last two nights. Why didn't you try to contact them?”
28. Reflection in a Window
“...there is time for happiness, without forgetting.”
Life is lived as a journey, but remembered as a collection of stories - and each story is least understood by the one who is in it. I travelled across Europe for over three years in the thirties, I saw the gorgeous sprawl of civilisation, I met many people who told me their secrets, but I also saw things that I couldn't explain. Over the years I think one or two of those puzzles I may have come to understand... And the ones that remain - who knows, perhaps I will understand them too, if there is enough time. Perhaps in the quiet evenings, as I write them down, they may unravel their secrets.
In the middle of 1931, not long after I retired, my wife of forty-four years, Genevieve, passed away. I believe I had lived a happy life - I was a librarian, and curator of butterflies. No doubt it was a life most would consider uneventful, perhaps even dull. But I was suddenly beset by intense grief, with little to distract me. I visited friends whenever I could, and this would help ease my loneliness a little. I used to take long walks, aimlessly, sometimes for hours, and it would help me to sleep. I read the works of the philosophers, hoping to learn something that could help me, but, like so many aphorisms and platitudes and all the things that people say in a time of sorrow, very little of it gave any relief from the pain I felt. I remember one unhappy night spending hours translating chapters of a Roman work of philosophy from the Latin, pondering what it was saying, and eventually throwing the book against the wall before going to bed.
I longed to talk to her for just a few minutes. So often I would think of the things she had said - I remember in 1915, not long after my fiftieth birthday, we went to the theatre in London - we had always loved the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Genevieve had bought tickets to see a production of The Yeomen of the Guard. The world had gone to war, and shattered the peace of Edwardian England. It seemed that every day was bringing new, horrific ways of fighting, and we were all seeking some distraction from what we read in the papers. As we were leaving the theatre she said,
"Well that wasn't as happy as the other operas."
"And the over-acting," I said. "Dear me!"
"I know, especially the jester. But did you see him at the end, when his heart was breaking? I've never seen such... desperate suffering on a face. Do you think that might have been real?"
"Maybe he's in love with the girl who played Elsie."
"All that jealousy and longing," she said. "I don't remember any of that when I was young."
"Let's find somewhere for a cup of tea. I'm freezing."
As we crossed the road I thought again of the grief on the jester's face, and I saw the faces of thousands of young men dying in violence, in the mud, all over Europe, denied the years to make the lives they had dreamt of. The feeling of how easily we can lose the most precious things in life suddenly welled up inside me, and I quickly took her hand...
"I'd be lost without you."
She turned to me and smiled.
"You worry too much sometimes. I won't leave you."
"Do I worry so much?"
How had she sensed that there was a real need for reassurance, however small, beneath the bonhomie? How many times over the years had she made my fears vanish with just a few words? And it seemed as if I was searching everywhere for those words again.
Even an old man can learn from experience. I came to understand, much later, that grief cannot be escaped. The words that set me on the path to this truth were given to me, from somewhere unexpected, in the form of a postcard mistakenly sent to my address. The picture showed a couple, standing, holding hands, looking at the Eiffel Tower. The message read;
Sitting in the hotel, about to hit the streets for dinner. Done heaps: Louvre, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triumphe, Eiffel tower. The food is excellent: cheeses to die for, wine, pastries, chocolates... Wandered thru the Sorbonne, paraded up & down the Blvd Saint-Germain & had lunch in the Jardin des Tuileries. My French is now a little more competent. I know I have already told you many times, but you really should travel, you would love seeing other countries.
The error that sent it to me was easily resolved, and I sent the postcard on. But as I posted it, I heard myself whispering a word of thanks. Perhaps it was fate, or perhaps I might have been inspired by any number of similar ways. But I like to think that somehow, somewhere, Genevieve was still looking after me. I decided I would abandon my books, my butterflies, my painfully empty house, and travel the continent, as much as my pension would allow, knowing that I could not do so indefinitely, but in the hope that at least the distraction might help to ease my sorrow.
Little did I know of the wonders, the dangers and the mysteries that lay before me...
2. The Umbrella Lady
So, in the autumn of 1931, with a blustery struggle across the channel, my travels began. I wanted to pay attention to everything as I travelled, to learn and absorb the sights and culture of places I had never seen. But so often I would find that my thoughts were drawn away from my sorrows, not by museums and churches, but by other people. As I walked along the streets I would watch them as they passed and wondered - were they as happy as I had been? Were they unhappy? Then they would walk past me, and were gone.
The first town I stayed at was Bayeux. As my train moved through the fields and towns of Normandy, the muted autumn colours of the scenery seemed like a living impressionist painting, unlike anything in England. Perhaps if I was in a more cheerful state of mind I would have enjoyed it more, but at least I was moving, and seeing new things, and already some tiny part of me knew that I was doing the right thing.
As the train pulled into the Gare de Bayeux, I saw an old woman walking under the trees by a field, in a cloud of falling autumn leaves. She was small, bent, with an umbrella held behind her back in the crooks of her elbows, as if in the hope it could straighten out the warp of years. Later that morning as I checked into my hotel I noticed her wander past outside on the road. I saw her again that afternoon, as if she spent all her life walking.
The next day I was resting on a bench not far from the cathedral, and I saw her come towards me. Her gait was awkward, as one would expect, but she was in no hurry, and when she reached me it seemed as if no time had passed.
"Please, sir, let me share your bench for a time. I must rest."
For some reason I had expected her speech to be thick with accent, if she spoke English at all. Yet she sounded as if she had lived surrounded by culture. I gestured to the bench beside me, smiling my acquiescence, and she sat down. After a minute or so, she began to gaze into the sky.
"The clouds today are eternal..."
I looked up. I saw long, thin, wavy clouds, soaring and yearning across the sky... The day was warm, with a gentle wind.
"Yes," I said, "it certainly is a lovely day."
I fancied I saw the tiniest flicker of resignation cross her face, and I wondered if she had wanted me to understand something more. After a moment, she turned to me with a vague smile.
"So, you're watching the world go by. It must be nice to be so free."
"Yes, I've retired, and I'm seeing something of the continent."
"But you're not bringing your wife with you?" she asked.
"No, she is no longer with us."
"Oh, I am sorry. Then travelling takes your mind away from the thoughts of her..."
I nodded. She paused for a moment then said,
"Many years ago, I lost my son. He was sixty-two years old, and he died from a heart attack."
"I'm very sorry."
"It was hard to see my child die before I did. Even so, he had a life that was longer than many others. I like to think it was a good life, perhaps a happy one. He was a professor of mathematics. But he never married. It was a long time ago."
"Well, I believe my wife and I were quite lucky. We were very happy, for a long time."
"Then it must have been especially hard for you to say goodbye."
"Yes," I murmured, "very hard."
"Do you remember the last few moments by her side?"
I could not bear to speak of them, even if it was rude. I could not bear even to think of them... But she did not wait to hear my reply.
"A moment of such meaning, to say goodbye to someone you have loved. So profound."
She turned, and looked me in the eye for a while.
"Do you find the years go by more quickly as you grow older?"
"Oh yes, certainly. I believe everybody does..."
"Yes. I'm sure you're right," she said. "They go more quickly, whether our life brings us suffering or joy. I sometimes wonder if it's because we no longer pay attention, because we've seen it all before, so we go to sleep, and don't notice the passing of the years..."
She stared into the distance for a minute or so. I tried to think of some way to reply. Then she rose slowly from the bench, smiling, and began to walk away.
Two days later, as I was paying my hotel account, the desk clerk said,
"Did you see the umbrella lady?"
"The old lady who carries an umbrella behind her back. They say that sooner or later she talks to every person in the world. You know, she was an old lady even when I was a boy!"
I saw the umbrella lady once more, as I made my way to the railway station. She smiled at me, but it was impossible to tell if she had remembered me.