Widow: Dominic Rose
At god knows what hour the doorbell goes. Morning? It’s still dark. There I was preparing our anniversary dinner à deux. Roquefort biscuits, olives, panisse chips, anchoïade; kippered salmon (which Inigo insisted on calling bradan rost) with minted leaves; twelve-hour lamb shoulder and saffron potato puree; Époisses; chocolate apocalypse with caramel armageddon and Cointreau revelation.
I heard the ringtone: Don’t Tell Me To Shush, Mush – remember The Barry Island Five? I love novelty numbers. I thought it was safe to assume it was Inigo to say that he had been delayed.
Well, I suppose in a sense he had been.
Irreversible coma sounded like a delay to me. Pretty permanent. Brain dead sounded sort of temporary, somehow worse than dead full stop. Dead full stop is neater, cleaner. More chic even, you might think. Yeh, more chic.
The caller from Poppy Tours had a solicitous manner. The Welsh are said to be a warm people. Probably because of deprivation and hardship. Lungs with pneumoconiosis and emphysema just shouldn’t be made to sing like that, bellowing at god like god’s got hearing difficulties. How do they know he has? Or are they just showing off?
Even though it wasn’t his job to do so he apologised that the Belgian police had taken hours to identify the victims and inform the British embassy. The accident had happened at 9.30 in the morning. There had, he said, been complications.
I looked at the invitations on the mantlepiece. Inigo and Dominic… Inigo and Dominic… Inigo and Dominic. I thought about cutting between our names and discarding the Inigo bits. The things that cross one’s mind! I looked at my face in the mirror above the mantlepiece. Unchanged from when a few moments ago I still had a lifemate.
‘Have you got someone to comfort you at this difficult time?’
‘A bottle or two of Lagavulin!’ I wasn’t joking.
‘Would it be a help to speak with mum?’
‘I’m afraid my mother died over ten years ago.’
Was it really that long? I was fretting about the saffron potatoes sticking.
Would Inigo approve my wine choices… As it happens he wouldn’t be approving or disapproving.
‘No no. I meant would you like to speak to my mum?’
Now, that struck me as strange since I didn’t know the lady.
‘She’s skilled in this department,’ he said.
I asked: ‘What department… I mean… sorry I’m not getting –’
‘The easing department,’ he replied, ‘easing… no?’
‘I really haven’t a clue what you’re on about.’
‘So sorry – you forget… some folks aren’t so familiar with what we call our special vocabulary… what I’m offering to you and shall be offering to all the loved ones afflicted in such tragic circumstances is a Poppy Tours’ partnership service… in collaboration with our partners in Dream Topping – our bespoke guided counselling,’ he explained (or not).
‘It so happens that Mum was a Founder Of Dream Topping™. She’s in semi-retirement now – in the autumn of her years – but she retains the title of Eliminator Emeritus. Just as… she retains a strong conviction in her mission. I have a feeling that she could be just the person to steady you at this special hour… to help you through the great barrier of bereavement, through that invisible wall of being… to rejoin Inigo… on the other side. As well as taking care of your psychic travel we endeavour-trigger the physical – how to circumvent the jeopardy beacons… watch out for the scalabilities. The process is painless… we supply the required medications. Mortar and pestle for the more traditional adventurer… Most folks who aren’t in poverty prefer to grind them in the Magimix… add sugar and alcohol of choice – I’m guessing Lagavulin for you! – then lie back… let yourself be carried downstream to the velvet ocean and then to a far port where Inigo will be sitting on the quay waiting to greet you, a chilled glass of Sancerre in his hand… how does that sound?… Shall I email you our terms?’
Tympanic rehearsal in my head. My mouth was uncouth. I stretched out for Inigo. Then it slowly resolved itself. Last night. The call. The further calls. Booking myself on a flight to Brussels at – when? I worked out what had happened, where he was or wasn’t. I remembered. I burst into tears, again.
The bell didn’t let up. I opened the door in my dressing gown. Two uniformed policemen and two police dogs stood there. Another policeman in a cheap leather jacket waved a sheet of paper.
‘What is this? D’you know what time it is?’
‘It’s the time when you catch people unawares. You would be?’
‘What’s going on?’
‘I asked you who you are.’
‘My name’s Dominic Rose.’
‘This is a warrant for these premises.’
‘What? You must–’
‘We are not mistaken. Got that? Thirty-four Blenheim Gardens. Going to have a little shufti us, eh!’
‘What… what are you looking for?’
‘Ooh that would be telling now wouldn’t it… And you are the what… The owner? The tenant?’
‘Co-owner… I just heard last night my partner has been severely injured so what are you doing. What are you doing?’
I was tearing up again. Welling.
‘That would be Ian Noel Horrocks. The co-owner. Your partner. Sounds likely more ex-partner eh?’
‘This is… ’
‘I repeat. Ian Noel Horrocks. Your partner… ex partner… sex partner…ooh you two and your love muscles Sir… if we can marry people of the same sex… next thing you know it’ll be pigs, dogs, marrying donkeys… Ian Noel Horrocks. Your partner?’
‘Yes… I suppose –’
‘You sound unsure Dominic.’
‘Inigo. He… used the name Inigo. As an historian. Nom de plume.’
‘Ooh. Did he indeed? Inigo. Very fucking fancy. His nom de plume –
Mister Parlay Vous is he? Was he? Never trust a fairy name changer. One of the fundaments of our trade. As taught at Hendon – of which college I am a fucking proud graduate. Are you going to invite us in – or shall we get Captain here to have a word?’
Captain was a Marcher Hound with a particularly gloomy outlook on life. I stood aside.
‘Not much moolah in being a historian… I’ve noticed that… easy to succumb… temptation all around… lured into crime… empty wigs.’
He held his face close to mine. Cigarette breath. He picked up the letters from the console table awaiting Inigo’s return, sniffed one with a hairy noxious rozzer’s nostril. It was like he was channelling reality TV hardman Vince Trowell from We Know Where You Live. He was what Inigo called BP. Beyond Parody. That didn’t make him any less scary.
‘Year or two back we banged up a very naughty historian… had a habit of walking out of Greek churches with icons. Specialist in Ionian something or other… Supplementing his research grant he said – not much of a fucking defence is it. He was lucky – he got to pay his debt in an English nick… Can you imagine a Greek one? Oooooh! Rampant! Not the sojourn of choice for a big girl’s blouse – what would that be the… 36F cup? Let’s start at the top lads.’
‘I’m going to call my solicitor.’
‘He’s not going to thank you for being woken up at this hour.’
‘She… And she won’t mind.’
Ayesha said to take photographs of every room in the house to record and discourage the filth’s vandalism, also learnt at Hendon – or does it come naturally to these louts? She’d be with me in less than forty minutes.
She hugged me: ‘Why didn’t you call – you silly thing.’
‘I know, I know… I just wanted to be alone looking at what I’d cooked. Listening to him commenting on it.’ I laughed and cried, laughed when I realised how ridiculous I must sound, cried because the finality of finality was rushing in recurring waves. The Boulevard of Broken Dreams was a cul de sac with an unscalable wall at its end.
They were all gathered in Inigo’s study.
When the cheap leather jacketed copper saw Ayesha there was a swift intake of breath.
His face went swiftly from confident bully to cornered bully.
Ayesha smiled at him: ‘Detective Sergeant Hubback! Great to see you. Great to see you’re not suspended… At the moment.’
‘Detective Inspector it is.’
‘Any hint of irregularity and you’ll be back to constable. Understood?’ She turned to me: ‘Detective Inspector Hubback has a remarkable gift. Whatever he seeks he finds. Where there were no seeds he finds plants. Warrant please.’
The lout extracted the now crumpled paper from his cheap leather jacket. She read it. He fiddled with his cheap leather jacket’s buckles.
‘You’re in shit. Have you looked at this?’
‘Course I have. It’s well valid. Don’t you come the learned fucking friend with me Miss.’
‘This isn’t a search warrant. It’s an arrest warrant – for Mr Horrocks. Granted in response to an Interpol Red Notice. The subject of the arrest warrant is in a coma… as you know very well.
‘This warrant has no legitimacy. And you are heading back to constable. And I shall bring a formal complaint against you. And another for damages to reputation – which I appreciate you don’t understand because you don’t have one worth damaging. Now if you dare call me a Paki bitch, again, I have a witness… to whom you have caused psychic harm. Even if this was an arrest warrant it would not sanction the presence, the invasive presence, of these dogs. Out!’
I am grateful to Denzil Groob (fractured wrist, abrasions), Len and Terri Mandy (him: facial bruising, her: broken Travel Scrabble set), Fizz Pinnigar (‘shaken but not stirred!’) and Mitch Cannock (nosebleed, whiplash) and Stan ‘The Wheels’ Corner (aggrieved) for what follows. Any faults are mine.
The coach had been late leaving Antwerp. Poppy Tours executive Spotty Dogg wearing his ‘signature’ Stetson and embroidered, pearl-buttoned rodeo shirt and snuffly Poppy Tours reception coordinator Billie Shelf were unusually slow at stowing the luggage.
It was as if there wasn’t enough room because everyone had added a parcel or two of gifts from Souvenirs van Oorlogsvoering or Boutique of the Bulge: oriflammes, iron crosses, Mausers, Werhrmacht helmets etc.
No. They were just slow.
‘They were fussing about like old women. Old women with hangovers… that’ll be it.’
Stan The Wheels was getting impatient. He offered to help them but they refused. Inigo tapped his wrist impatiently. He was about to pick up his Black Watch tartan case.
‘Why don’t I just take it inside. There’s plenty –’ ‘Regulations. You know that as well as I do,’ said Spotty.
Conditions were not much of an improvement on the previous day when the party had been taken by boat around Walcheren Island at the mouth of the choppy Scheldt. Inigo was relieved it was the end of the tour.
When he phoned that evening he complained about yet more broken dykes, yet more collapsed bunkers, yet more Flemish drizzle, yet another opportunistic museum. ‘How many damned curators can one battle sustain?’ But it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t really fed up. I knew that. And he knew I knew. He loved imparting knowledge whether it was to an audience of millions or to thirty old soldiers and war tourists.
It was one of the war tourists whose selfishness and unforgivable irresponsibility was the major cause of the tragedy.
Ernest Bective was a Poppy Tours veteran, a Pewter Nectar member with Special Privileges. He was Inigo’s bête noir. He was known to fellow tourists as Nappies. He called himself Ernestine.
‘I identify as a WRAC,’ he or she insisted. She wore heavy make-up, which failed to mask her outlaw stubble, a variety of WRAC uniforms of the 1950s and ’60s, a variety of wigs. She claimed to have worked in the Military Police and in the Judge Advocate’s department. There was no sound she savoured as much as a rusting door shrieking as it scraped a gas chamber’s floor. Oradour-sur-Glane and Lidice were her Mecca, her Lourdes. War criminals’ graves really gave her a hard-on: she would have liked to exhume them, to put the Bloody Bosch on trial again and show them her kind of justice: ‘I’m ready with my cheesewire… always ready with my cheesewire.’
The other regulars greeted her each morning with a weary ‘Harwich for the Continent Ernestine’ as she strode towards her seat at the back of the coach beside the toilet. Beware anyone challenging her for that position!
Off they went on the road to Dunkirk with Stan The Wheels berating Spotty because he was going to have to make up time. It’s safe to assume that Inigo was deep in popular scholarship with the more learned of the group. I can see him. That’s how it had been on the couple of trips I had made with him.
There were friendly disputes:
Were The 2nd Malverns ever stationed at Douai? Surely St Omer… where the boat lift is.
Honest… your uncle can’t have been at Amiens, it was the Yanks who were there… he was a Yank… I only call him my uncle out of habit… I found out he was my biological…
My Dad got the MC but we never talked about it…
My Dad got the clap but we never talked about it…
And less friendly disputes:
Loading trucks up the NAAFI HQ wasn’t contributing…
I lost my leg when Jerry bombed the Cunliffe-Owen plant so don’t you dare say I didn’t do my bit… We made Spitfire components…
Don’t you bloomin’ well pull rank with me you stuck up gopwo… territorial twat…
You transvestite desk jockey…
Ernestine won most arguments by shouting loudest.
‘In my day you’d have been on jankers in Catterick.’
Or ‘In my day you’d have been in the glasshouse at Shepton Mallet and they’d have thrown away the key.’
Twenty minutes after the coach had set out Ernestine got up as usual to go to the toilet. It was locked. She glared at the door. Sitting only a yard away from it she knew no one had entered it. She prodded the lock with tweezers. She banged on the door with her banana fists.
‘Spotty, where are you? The khazi’s locked.’
Terri and Len saw Spotty exchange a furtive glance with Billie. A worried glance she reckoned. Terri lipread Billie berating Spotty: ‘I fucking told you.’
Terri whispered to Len: ‘What’s that about when it’s at home then?’ Neither Spotty nor Billie did anything. They ignored Ernestine’s racket. She yelled: ‘You got osteo-inertia or what? You going to see to it.’
When they persisted in ignoring her she frustratedly marched up to the front where Spotty and Billie were seated just behind Stan the Wheels. She stood over them: ‘Denying an irritable bowel a toilet is like denying a dipso a drink.’
Liable to end in tears and fury. If not nappies. That’s where the name came from. Liable to end here in tragedy.
‘We got a technical on the toilet… soreee… we’ll stop at the first services… we got services coming up soon. Promisss!’ said snuffling Billie Shelf.
‘I’m a Pewter Nectar… you got no respect. No fucking respect. I’ll soil the bus.’
‘We’ll be there in just a minute,’ Spotty, emollient.
‘You hold on… you know you can… there’s a good girl,’ encouraged Billie Shelf.
‘It’s not a fucking whim it’s my bowel. It’s not by choice I’m irritable!’
Inigo mock-beat his forehead. He sighed to Fizz Pinniger and Mitch Cannock: ‘I guess I’d better try and calm him.’
‘Her,’ giggled Fizz, so nicknamed because strawberry blondes are vivacious and bubbly.
Inigo undid his seat belt, straightened the Poppy Tours brochure in the seat pocket in front of him, and with a shake of the head moved down the aisle.
Wout van’t Hoff happily agreed that he had been on the E17 at the time the coach left the road. That was all. So had many other vehicles been on that road. He had not been involved in a collision. He had overtaken many vehicles that morning. And no he had not exceeded the speed limit. Check cameras. They are more reliable than the opinion of an elderly tourist who doesn’t speak Flemish.
How could he be expected to register the movement of the vehicles he had overtaken. He had just joined the motorway, at the junction near Damslootsmeer (layer of mist on the water). Two minutes later he was driving down the middle lane overtaking many vehicles, maybe the coach in question. Drizzle, windscreen wiper on pause.
The police would have noticed that the tattoo on his generous spare tyre of neck suet looked like a label sticking out of a coat’s collar. It showed a heraldic lion breathing fire or showing off an exceptionally long tongue. He was driving a Guy G40 lorry belonging to Bouw Team K&N Projects. The nicknames he had given himself THROBBING LOVE MACHINE and KILLING HATE MACHINE were displayed on registration plates in the windscreen.
Denzil Groob told me that:
Not wanting to join in the barney Nappies had fuelled up, he was watching out of the spray-glazed window, worrying about the unsecured rolls of roofing felt, tar paper and glass fibre and the big plastic jumbo buckets of sealant and liquid mortar in the lorry’s open back. Bouw Team – a name to remember (and to later report to the police). He worried too when Wout van’t Hoff put a fresh cigarette in his mouth and struggled to light it from the dimp of the previous cigarette.
Switching focus, blinking, trying between swipes of the wiper to keep one eye on the greasy road which the lorry was swiftly swallowing up and one eye on the small inflammatory source two blurred inches from his face he misjudged the relative positions of the two cigarettes. The fresh knocked the glowing dimp into his lap. He couldn’t see where it had fallen. He flapped with his driving hand. Panicky, he tried to locate hot tobacco not yet ash somewhere in his sticky roofing-specialist’s groin. He heaved his body from the sweaty seat. He swept blindly beneath him. It’s safe to assume that this made him momentarily abandon control of the lorry which veered into the path of the Poppy Tours coach. A second was all it took to turn one state into another, trees into timber, life into death.
Stan The Wheels had joined in trying to calm Ernestine. Frankly it hadn’t helped calling her Nappies to her face. Wobbly is as wobbly does (Terri’s little phrase, that). His concentration was impaired. He hadn’t seen Wout van’t Hoff’s lorry violating lane discipline till it was too late. He braked hard as he could and swung the wheel. He avoided a collision by attempting to steer the coach onto the hard shoulder. It was travelling too fast for such a manoeuvre.
The coach went beyond the hard shoulder. It left this raised section of the E17 above the Gentbrugge allotment gardens, demolished the mauve and tan wave-motif retaining wall, hurried through the railings beyond and plunged down and down and down through shrubs and alders for what must have seemed an eternity but was only a second until it flopped with a grunt obliterating a hut beside the allotments’ carpark and raised a dome of dry earth that could be seen from far far way. It did not turn over.
Wout van’t Hoff saw something, he wasn’t sure what, in the nearside rearview mirror. He succeeded in lighting a new cigarette, inhaled thankfully and continued to the Heilige Mariaschool the other side of Ghent at Nazareth.
Screams. Self-searches for signs of continued existence. Collective bewilderment. Collective jolting and jarring. Most of the windows were broken. Hardly see-through. Stan The Wheels punched the epicentre of the webbed windscreen glass. Shards pelted in. Dust poured in. There were oaths and whimpers. Several passengers were concussed. Bry from Oswestry was bleeding from a head wound. A voice called: ‘I need a torch. I got to have a torch.’ Row 4 couldn’t move. ‘I’ve smelled this before – it’s going to go up… it’s going to go up.’ There was terror in the sudden silent stillness. Followed by a rush to get out of the coach.
‘Unseemly… that’s the only word for it… elbows!’ said Fizz.
The world was at a tilt down there. The world had finished for my darling Inigo. With the exception of Ernestine he was the only person not wearing a seat belt. He was thrown off his feet. Being so tall his head crashed against the pneumatic door closer. He didn’t suffer (that was for me, forever). He never regained consciousness.
I was there at Ghent University Hospital to sanction switching off life support – without Dream Topping™ greedily claiming a fee for pulling the plug.
Every cloud. When the coach landed the toilet door sprung open. Ernestine’s finely tuned extra sense spotted it immediately. She fought her way towards it. Amidst the screams and moans and oaths and cries and the chaotic race to get out in case of fire Ernestine pushed against the tide of her fellows, barging, footing the length of the vehicle from the very front to the back. While the rest of the passengers were in distress and shock, climbing over seats with old limbs on the blink, flailing and stumbling, struggling to move, Ernestine was savouring a mighty evacuation (hints of dried fruit, and were those notes of Maasdammer cheese coming through?).
Stan The Wheels gave Inigo the kiss of life on a patch of damp grass. In vain, in vain. That loving gesture would not correct the deep fault in my darling’s brain. The passengers became refugees in the scrawny drizzle. They wondered where they were. The traffic roared on oblivious. Its spray rose high. The boughs dripped. There was no one around. The allotments were deserted. A flag on top of a rusty shipping container drooped in the damp. They stared at improvised polythene windbreaks and tidy rows of cabbages converging in the distance. An unmade road of puddles disappeared into a wood. They hugged one another, failed to avoid muddy puddles. They hesitated to shelter in the dank spaces between the piers that supported the motorway – drier but uninviting, all grubby sacks and broken axles.
‘It was like being marooned.’
‘Yes but only for a few minutes… that’s not a real castaway.’
Spotty was doing a head count with his clipboard. It looked purposeful.
There was a feeling that he didn’t know what to do. Like the toilet the luggage compartment had burst open. A few cases and rucksacks were on the damp ground along with intact panes of window glass. The coach was squashed. The tyres had burst. The wheels were retracted and invisible, absorbed by the vehicle, making it immobile, settled. It might have been there for years rather than minutes.
‘Where the fuck is Nappies?’ Spotty asked no one in particular.
Dave Maliphant, on his eighth Poppy Tour, had been last off the bus. He started to try to speak, seized his left shoulder with his right hand, gargled, rattled, jerked, his neck spasmed in time to an infernal rhythm. He folded into the ground. Fizz knew the symptoms. She cradled him as he died.
‘He went doing what he loved most,’ Spotty patted her on the back and hurried away.
Billie found Ernestine sitting in the coach.
‘I done my ankle. I can’t move.’
The breast of her WRAC dress uniform was covered in white dust. She asked: ‘What is it? It’s all over the khazi?’
‘Just you sit there dear,’ Billie instructed.
Billie was soon outside again, huddled up with Spotty. They had something on their mind. They were neglecting the passengers who were victims. They were not enhancing Poppy Tours’ reputation. She went back into the coach.
‘Let’s see if I can’t brush you down,’ she said to Ernestine. She wiped the dust with an antimacassar.
‘What is it? I’m getting it all tickling my nose. It feels funny. I’m coming over all funny. I need water. I got this ankle. What is it?’
‘It’s like the powder from the airbag. Very technical and that. Gets everywhere. But it’s just talc really.’
Billie helped Ernestine out of the coach. Her injury had been caused when she forced her way to the toilet.
Mitch was puzzled. What was Spotty up to when he leapt up the coach’s steps with an urgency previously unseen. He was clutching Dave Maliphant’s khaki kitbag and Inigo’s distinctive suitcase, both of which must have been ejected from the luggage compartment. (We chose the suitcase together in Archie Povey & Nephew on the Royal Mile. Inigo had been for the Balfour. But he came round when I said it looked more like a Japanese tartan than anything RLS would have recognised.) When Spotty re-emerged from the coach he was still holding the suitcase and the kitbag.
He was soaked. He looked as though he had been in a shower.
‘Just fixing a cistern problem,’ he explained to Mitch who thought it seemed an odd thing to be worrying about. No sense of priorities with the young.
The first emergency vehicles ploughed along the unmade road. Wailing sirens, flashing lights. They had responded to calls from witnesses to the coach leaving the motorway and from the bedraggled passengers standing in the drizzle struggling to give a map reference for this patch of land whose characteristics were described variously as ‘ordinary… spongey underfoot… just like you might find anywhere… near a sort of track.’ It was noted that neither Spotty nor Billie had known the relevant numbers to ring.
‘They had the leadership clout of a gnat. No nous, no gumption. They were there… but they weren’t there. He kept on going on about how his hat was ruined. I don’t know what they were on. When in doubt bury your head in the sand… You know where that would have got you in Crossmaglen.’
Terri put her arm round me: ‘Inigo would have got it shipshape in minutes… that’s the tragedy of it.’
‘That’s a bit of a selfish way of looking at it love,’ Len frowned at her.
‘No… please. It’s all right,’ I told him, ‘It just shows how much he was appreciated…’ I kept on tearing up. The loss was everywhere. These people meant so well. Salt of the earth. They didn’t see, they couldn’t see, that he was in everything in the sitting room we were sitting in, everything. Silly keepsakes mean as much as paintings by name artists.
It was one long yearning for the irreplaceable, for our great past together, all sun dappled days… and for my future alone, all darkness. The house, our house, my house had changed purpose. It had gone from home to monument, from shelter to memento mori.
*This story is an excerpt from Empty Wigs. Jonathan Meades is crowdfunding at Unbound.
Jonathan Meades is a writer, journalist, essayist and film-maker. He was educated in the west of England and later went to RADA where he learnt to play himself. He has written and performed in sixty television films on predominantly architectural and topographical subjects such as plotlands, garden cities, brutalism and megastructures, the utopian avoidance of right angles, Belgium, the Baltic, French identity, and the architecture of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. The Whitechapel Gallery and the National Film Theatre staged a retrospective of his work in 2017. His books include three works of fiction – Filthy English, Pompey and The Fowler Family Business – and several collections of journalism, essays and squibs. His deflected autobiography, An Encyclopaedia of Myself , won Best Memoir in the Spear’s Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Pen Ackerley Prize in 2015. His ‘anti-cookbook’, The Plagiarist In The Kitchen, appeared in 2017. He has published a box of 100 postcards, Pidgin Snaps. His ‘treyfs’ and ‘art-knacks’ have been exhibited at the London/Newcastle space in a show entitled ‘Ape Forgets Medication’ and at Gallery 108 in Harrogate. His last film was Mass Tourism, on the architecture of Franco’s Spain. His most recent book is Pedro and Ricky Come Again.
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