If You're Reading This, I'm Already Dead, page 1
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© 2012 by Andrew Nicoll
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Also by Andrew Nicoll
The Good Mayor
The Love and Death of Caterina
For Libby, who taught me to tell stories
We were in Pest when this story began. Christ, was it Pest? It might have been Buda. One of them is up the hill and the other one is across the river. It doesn’t matter. We were in Budapest when this story began and I was a young man and as strong as an ox with the looks of a young Hercules, whiskers like the horns on a prize bull and a whang you could hang wet towels off.
Now I’m an old man and I’m shit-scared and I’ve left it too late and, if you’re reading this, I’m already dead. I’ve always wanted to write that: “By the time you read this I shall be dead.” That and “It was a dark and stormy night.” Stories come after words like that.
Well, this is a dark and stormy night all right, pitch black except for where the fires are burning all along the docks, black as hell, except for the flashes of bombs going off, thunder and lightning, the fires screaming like a gale, lumps of metal the size of pianos falling out of the sky and screaming all the way down and bits of shrapnel, fizzing and spitting off the roof like a rain of red-hot needles.
Two hours ago I was in Wilhelmstrasse. There was this kid—I don’t know how old he was, maybe fourteen, maybe fifteen, I don’t know, they’re throwing anybody they can get into the mincer now. So there he was, in his crappy uniform, proud as a dog with two pricks, marching a column of Italians back to spend the night in the docks. That’s the punishment for our gallant allies. That’s what they get for throwing in the towel. Screw the Axis. Stuff the international brotherhood of Fascism and National Socialism. To hell with all of that. We work the poor bastards half to death all day and then we tuck them in at the docks to see if another night of bombing might cheer them up a bit.
They shuffled along in their cardboard shoes with the kid pretending to march, acting like he was driving them on when the only thing keeping them going was the thought of black bread and cabbage soup. And, all of a sudden, he shouts, “Halt!” and he looks at me like I’m Winston Churchill, sticks me with his rifle and demands to see my papers. Little shit. I’m seventy-three years old, for God’s sake. How many seventy-three-year-old spies have you ever heard of?
I reached into my jacket while he stood there, keeping me covered, half hunched, two hands on the rifle, ready to spring into action if I should suddenly decide to overpower him and steal his Italians. So of course, when I produced my papers like a good citizen of the Reich, he couldn’t take them because his hands were busy.
“Open them,” he said.
“Hold them up a bit higher.”
“That can’t be right.” He was looking at me really hard, his eyes darting to the picture on my pass and then back at me again.
“Bring it closer,” he said.
So I did. I was right up against him with my hand in his face when I felt the rush of wind and the kid wasn’t there any more. No warning. Not even a siren. Just a bomb that dropped so close we didn’t even hear it until it landed, straight through the roof of the house on the corner and right down to the ground floor. That whole wall disappeared just as if somebody had cut it out like a slice of cake, and it took the kid and it left me. Nothing touched me. Not a brick, not a stick or a bit of broken glass. Nothing. I felt the fire of it pass me and I thought I was going to die. I felt it roar and growl and rumble so it shook my heart inside my chest and now every bone aches like I’ve been three rounds with a Turkish wrestler or three days in a Turkish brothel, and my suit’s scorched and there’s plaster between my teeth but I didn’t die. The kid died but I didn’t die. I ran—and I can still run, believe me. I ran until I got back here to my little caravan and I climbed inside and I locked the door as if a few slats of wood and a couple of sheets of tin could keep the bombs out. I got away with it, but I expect to be dead by morning. It’s been five months since the Allies landed in Normandy and the radio says our unstoppable forces are about to throw them back into the sea any day now. In the meantime they come as they please and the bombs fall in long lines, crump, crump, crump, like an angry child trampling on sandcastles, flames bloom in the night like jungle flowers, kids vanish in the gale of a bomb. That’s what we get. That’s all we deserve for following that stupid, Jew-hating bastard into hell.
But I can’t sit here all night just pissing my pants and waiting for the bombs to drop, and that’s why I’m writing this.
I want one final round of applause before the curtain. I want somebody to come picking through what’s left of my caravan to find this and say, “That can’t be right,” the way that kid said, “That can’t be right,” when he saw my pass. I want people to know how Otto Witte, acrobat of Hamburg, beca
A story like that needs a drum roll and trumpets. It needs girls with feathers in their hair and spangled tights. It needs colored lights and velvet curtains. You can’t start that story with an old man pissing his pants in an air raid. I’m going to tear this up and start again.
We were in Pest when this story began. Christ, was it Pest? It might have been Buda. One of them is up the hill and the other one is across the river. We were in Budapest, that’s where we were. There was me, Otto Witte, acrobat of Hamburg; my old mate Max Schlepsig the sword swallower and professional strongman; Professor Alberto von Mesmer, the Human Encyclopedia, who did a mind-reading act with his gorgeous daughter, Sarah; and Tifty Gourdas. Tifty said she was a Magyar countess, kicked out of the family palace because she fell in love with a humble dancing master. We all thought that was probably a lie, but she could dance to set the sawdust on fire and she knew how to strip. And when she said “fell in love with a humble dancing master” that probably meant something else altogether. Tifty and me, we used to do something else altogether from time to time, just for a little bit of comfort on the cold winter nights. It gets cold when you’re sleeping out under canvas. You couldn’t blame her. I was gorgeous.
Tifty used to do private performances for select groups of gentlemen after the last show. Just for the quality. None of your riff-raff. We’d all hurry and get the bears and the ponies bedded down for the night, sweep up the horseapples from the big top and spread a velvet cloth over a couple of benches in the ringside seats. Then I’d go and untie the tent flaps and they’d be waiting there in the shadows, one or two of them, gentlemen of quality, with their canes and their opera capes and their fancy bow ties. I’ve no idea how they found out about it. We never advertised as far as I knew, but I suppose word got round. There’s not much to do in Kosice on a Monday night, and by God she could strip.
Me and Max used to stand around at the back. Tifty liked to have us there, just to make sure that these intimate little performances didn’t get too intimate. We took the cash and never kept a penny for ourselves. That was fair enough. Nobody was paying to watch us take our pants off. No, we gave every farthing to Tifty, but she always saw us right one way or another—in cash or kind. I was never stuck for a beer or a cuddle when Tifty was around, and I’m guessing neither was Max. Well, that’s fair enough too. We shared everything else.
So there we were in Budapest, me and Max and Professor Alberto von Mesmer and the girls.
We had the afternoon off between shows and I fancied a few beers, but Max wanted to go to the pictures so we all went. Going to the pictures was a different thing entirely in those days. For starters, there was no such thing as a picture house. These days a picture house is a magnificent palace with seats for hundreds and mirrors and chandeliers and fancy curtains and girls with trays of ice cream. Of course, that was when we still had ice cream and before the picture houses all got bombed flat.
Back then they used to put on a picture show in any old beer hall. You could get a bit of singing and a beer and maybe a comic or dancers, unless it was a Sunday, or performing dogs—I always liked that—and then they’d turn the lights out and put the pictures on. A film show was just one more item on the program. Nobody ever thought they were going to last.
So there we were, all together, sitting on this long bench. I can see us now, my old mate Max at one end and then the Professor and then Sarah—did I mention the Professor was blind? Sarah was sitting next to him so she could whisper in his ear to tell him what was happening on the screen.
It was really good in those days. They could make a picture in England or America or Germany and it didn’t make any difference because there weren’t any words. Anybody could understand it. That was proper acting. Now it’s all in the words. It’s no use showing an American picture in Germany even if we could get them. Talkies ruined the films, I’m telling you. Nobody acts any more.
So there was my old mate Max, and the Professor, and Sarah whispering in his ear. People get so excited about that kind of thing now. They don’t like chatting in the middle of the show. There’s a lot of “shushing” and I just call that rude. Back then people used to join in a lot more, shout out at the people in the picture and tell them to “look out” or “hurry up.” Now it’s all so polite. Anyway, I suppose people made allowances since the Professor was blind and he wasn’t going to get his money’s worth unless somebody told him what was going on. And Sarah was sitting on my left and I got my hand down her skirt in the dark and gave her bum a bit of a tickle and Tifty was sitting on my right and I got my other hand down her skirt and gave her bum a bit of a tickle too, and I’m not going to tell you what Tifty was doing with her hand while I was doing that. Luckily Sarah wasn’t that kind of girl. There would have been hell to pay if their hands had touched but Sarah was a good girl. Sarah was the kind of girl you marry.
It’s a great thing, sitting in the dark with a pretty girl, but sitting in the dark with two pretty girls is even nicer.
Now, if you’re like me I don’t suppose you remember too many films. If you went to the pictures one day and something came on in the second feature and you’d seen it before, it might come back to you, but how many films could you actually remember, frame by frame, scene by scene, and play them over again on the inside of your eyelids if you sat down in the dark and closed your eyes?
Well, I can remember that one. Every last cough, spit and fart of it. By God, that was a picture. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a sensation. As far as I recall the people who made it stole the idea from somebody else’s book, which sounds like a very fine plan to me. Somebody else has all the trouble of making up a story and all the labor of writing down a mountain of words (which is no small thing, as I am discovering) and then you just come along and make a picture out of it. When you think about it, that really is the easy bit. A picture paints a thousand words right enough. You don’t have to waste a gallon of ink describing the hero’s jutting jaw or his prancing stallion. You don’t have all the bother of coming up with fancy metaphors; like saying that the princess has skin as soft and white as goose feathers or anything like that. You just take their pictures and anybody can see for themselves that the princess is a knockout and the hero has a jaw like the prow of the Tirpitz and a horse the size of a train.
But, like I said, I don’t blame them for stealing this story. It was such a good story it almost made me want to read the book. It was called The Prisoner of Zenda and it was about this bloke who went to a faraway country and found out that he was the living image of the new king, only the king was locked up in a dungeon, hidden away by his villainous cousin and, if the king didn’t turn up for his coronation, the cousin would take the throne. So the king’s friends found the bloke who looked exactly like the king and passed him off and got him crowned and rescued the real king and then, by way of thanks, they kicked the doppelgänger out of the country.
It was a fantastic picture. It had everything: romance and suspense and sword fights—lots of sword fights—and I remember the pianist was very good, really caught the mood, knew what to play for the kissy bits when the bloke was making up to the princess and what to play when the villains came on and what to do when they were having their sword fights. And this was proper sword fights, none of this nancyboy stuff like they do in those fancy student houses, where they stand on milking stools and whack each other about the head until somebody ends up with a lump sliced out of their face to prove what an aristocrat they are while they’re killing little Jewish girls. No, this was the real thing, with running about and climbing up and downstairs and throwing the furniture around. By God, it was good.
None of us had ever seen anything like it. Sarah was gabbling away in her father’s ear, telling him what was happening and what it said on those signs they used to put up on the screen when there was something important to explain and—I’ve got to say—people were pretty good about it. I like to think that’s because people in general
Sarah was pretty good at that storytelling business. The Professor was sitting there stone blind, but I don’t think he missed a single thing that I saw with my own two eyes. Sarah was even putting in the colors and the smells and the Professor was getting ahead of her, guessing what was coming next or telling her to hurry up, “What’s happening now? Watch out for that step!” and when it came to the sword fights or the chases on horseback our whole bench was bouncing along and Sarah was getting more and more excited—you could hear it in her voice—and bouncing along all the faster and so was Tifty. By God, that was a good picture.
But all good things must come to an end and, before too long, the lights went up again and I got my hands out of the girls’ knickers and back in my own pockets just in time for the performing dogs coming back on.
My mate Max said, “I’ve had enough of this. You coming?”
I wanted to see the dogs. I like dogs. I’ve always liked dogs, and dogs like me. Nobody else could be bothered. After a picture like that, things were bound to go a bit flat, I suppose, so they all decided to move on; it was almost time for us to get ready for that night’s show anyway.
“I’m staying for the dogs,” I said. Also there was a barmaid who was making sheep’s eyes at me before the picture show and she was still making sheep’s eyes at me after the picture show and I thought I might let her feel my muscles.
So Max said, “Fair enough.” Never a cross word, me and Max. If it suited me, it suited Max, and if it suited Max, it suited me, and he gave me the money for another glass of beer before he left.
I didn’t stay long after that. God, this is long-winded and those bombs aren’t getting any further away. I’m going to have to write a bit faster if this story is going to get told before I get blown up. This isn’t how a king should tell the story of how he got to be the king. I’m going to tear this up and start again.
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