His name was Bernard. I knew that much about him. At least I thought I did.
He lived in a flat on the top floor of a low rise block opposite my own. He was about sixty years old, six feet tall and of heavy build. The blinds of his flat were almost always down, but occasionally his kitchen blinds would be up and I could sometimes see him moping about, cleaning up the slops, perhaps, or preparing a culinary treat. Sometimes I saw him leaving or returning to his flat. He walked with his arms hanging lankly by his sides and his head lowered to the ground. His walk was slow and orderly, never looking around him or at passers-by, his gaze fixed on the ground in front. He invariably had a haversack on his back and an outdoor coat, with a heavy pair of boots.
I called him ‘a man of mystery‘, and became intrigued, one might even say, obsessed with wanting to know who he was and what he did, particularly as he sometimes disappeared for days at a time. I knew he was away because at night there was not the tiniest light from behind the chinks in the drawn blinds. Where was he on these occasions, I wondered. ‘Where are you, O man of mystery? Where are you?’ I finally had to admit that my obsession was driving me slightly insane, and that the only remedy would be to find out who is and where he goes. But how to do that? And then events surprisingly took a turn. And it happened at a most inopportune time, at 4 a.m. on a Thursday morning.
I had got up for my nocturnal visit to the bathroom when I noticed that Bernard’s bedroom and living room were lit up behind the blinds. Then I watched as his kitchen light came on and he came into the kitchen from the living room. He was wearing his outdoor coat. He did something in the kitchen and then went back into the living room, but the living room curtains were drawn so that my only view of the living room was through his open kitchen door.
I stood in my darkened room with my eyes transfixed on Bernard’s flat. Where was he going? And at four in the morning? I scanned the street to see if a taxi was waiting, but all was still and quiet. I maintained my surveillance. After about ten minutes he came back into his kitchen, then seconds later I saw the kitchen light extinguished and his shadow as he went back into the still-lighted living room. But a few seconds later the living room light too was extinguished with only the bedroom light glowing behind the blinds. Then that went out. The man of mystery was on the move.
I kept my eyes peeled on the stairwell of his flat. And sure enough, about one minute later, I saw him come out onto the stairwell and make his slow way down the stairs. I looked at the street, but there was still no sign of a taxi. There was a bus stop at the corner, but no buses until about six-thirty. When he stepped out of the building I could see that he had his haversack on his back, though it did not appear to have much in it, almost empty in fact. He walked slowly past the row of parked cars, his head lowered, his arms by his sides, turned right, and made his way up the small bank towards my block. I went to the window so I could see him pass. His face was passive, giving nothing away. If he had looked in my direction he could not fail to have seen my silhouette at the window. Then he disappeared from view.
I was nonplussed (the word is not too strong), and stood for about five minutes while I tried to assess what I had witnessed. But I was very tired, so I did my business in the bathroom, had a drink of water (another of my nocturnal habits), and went back to bed.
But I could not sleep. A million questions were swirling inside my head. Where was he headed at this unearthly hour? Was he having a night stroll? But why the haversack? There was a supermarket about 2 miles distance which stayed open around the clock. Maybe he worked there, stacking shelves or collecting trolleys. But do they stack shelves and collect trolleys at 4 o’clock in morning? I put the idea to one side and looked for another answer. And I suddenly remembered the metro station.
‘Of course! He’s catching an early morning flight!’
But where to? And why didn’t he organise a taxi to take him to the airport? Certainly it would cheaper to use the metro. And where was his luggage if he was jetting off somewhere? An almost empty haversack could hardly be called luggage. But that would depend on how long he was planning to be away. If it was only two or three days then a change of socks and linen would be all he would need.
I lay on my back thinking of all the possible scenarios until mercifully I fell asleep.
The next morning my mind was still preoccupied with the man of mystery’s mysterious nocturnal departure. I reconsidered all the possible options I had thought of, and became convinced that the airport option was the most likely. So I booted up my tablet to do some research.
There were two early morning flights, both at 7 a.m., one to Amsterdam and one to Paris. Which of the two would he be more likely to choose? Unfortunately I knew almost nothing about him. I had spoken to him on only one occasion when I saw him on the street. We talked for about 2-3 minutes with myself doing most of the talking. He spoke with a very soft voice, which seemed to belie his physical appearance, and I had to strain my ears to hear what he was saying. Not that he said anything of significance, indeed I am unable to remember a single thing that he did say. So there was nothing from that brief encounter to enable me to deduce which he favoured the most, the canals of Amsterdam or the boulevards of Paris.
But I became convinced in my mind that that it was either towards Amsterdam or Paris that he was currently cruising at 30,000 feet and 500 miles per hour.
But which of the two would it be?
Then, suddenly, mirabile dictu, I had a flash of inspiration. I had been in Paris myself about a year earlier and had stayed in a hotel at Porte de Clignancourt in the north of the city. Maybe Bernard owns a small apartment, or possible a studio, at Porte de Clignancourt, and this is the hideaway to which he habitually disappears. I had to admit that the notion had its attractions. For one thing it would explain the flimsy haversack that he carried with him. Why would he need to take luggage when he had a wardrobe and a chest of drawers of personal effects in his studio-apartment at Porte de Clignancourt. (I had decided that his Paris residence would be a studio-apartment.) It all seemed to hang together, albeit in an illogical, even ludicrous way. Maybe I was getting desperate. When you’re in the last ditch all you can do is sing. So I decided to banish all logic from my mind and go along with it.
In the days that followed I kept a ‘watching brief’, as I called it, on Bernard’s flat. By the following Wednesday morning nothing had changed. The living room and bedroom blinds were still lowered, and the kitchen blinds still opened. I decided to put the whole business out of my mind as much as I could. To forget all about Bernard. Fate, however, had other plans for me. For on that same Wednesday morning I got into a conversation with a neighbour who lived in Bernard’s block and on the same stairwell.
I don’t know the lady’s name. She was middle-aged and a little on the plump side. She was already standing at the bus stop when I got there, just the two of us. We began chatting about this and that, nothing in particular, the weather mainly, and then out of the blue I said to her: 'I haven't seen much of Bernard lately. Have you?' She looked at me. 'Who?' she said. 'Bernard,' I said. 'Who's he?' she said. 'Lives in your block,' I said. 'Bernard?' she said. 'Yes,' I said. 'What does he look like?' she said. 'Tall, six foot, well set, early sixties,' I said. 'Oh, him!' she said. 'Yes,' I said. 'His name's not Bernard,' she said. 'Not Bernard?' I said. 'No,' she said. 'So what is it?' I said. 'Gordon,' she said. 'Gordon?' I said. 'Yes,' she said. 'Oh,' I said.
And that was that. Well, what a turn up for the book that was. All the time I had known him, about five years, and I thought his name was Bernard. How could I have got it so wrong? Gordon? I have to confess that he didn’t look like a Gordon. Though I couldn’t recall ever having met a Gordon, so I don’t really know what they are supposed to look like. And I doubt if all Gordons look alike. Maybe the lady got in wrong. Though she seemed so sure. Then I had another inspiration! I would go to the library and check his name on the electoral register.
Alas, the lady was right. His full name was Gordon Shoemaker. An unusual name. But there it was. I was disappointed that his family name was not French, as this would add credence to my belief that he visited Paris. But at least it was a step forward. Or possibly not.
My day of surprises, however, was not over. For when I got back home I saw that Bernard’s, sorry, Gordon’s, bedroom blinds were up, a clear sign that he was back. But back from where? The man of mystery, I had to confess, was as mysterious as ever.
The following morning, a Thursday, I set my alarm for 4 a.m. so I could keep a watching brief to see if he had departed (I almost wrote absconded) as he had the previous Thursday. But there were no lights shining in the any of the rooms of his flat. I maintained my watch until 4.30 a.m. and then went back to bed.
His bedroom blinds were up at 8 a.m. when I got up, from which I deduced that he was no longer abed. The living room blinds were also drawn, though this was habitual, for indeed I had never seen them open. The kitchen blinds were down. I was sure that they had been up the previous night, and from this I was able to deduce that he had been in the kitchen and lowered them some time before 8 a.m. I went about my business and did not check again until 10.30 a.m. when the bedroom blinds were down and the kitchen blinds were up. This corresponded with the arrangement of the blinds when Gordon had left his flat at 4 a.m. the previous Thursday for his flight to Paris. Did it signify that he was on the move once more and so quickly after his return? I doubted it, but with a man of mystery one can never be sure. And, in fact, by 3.30 p.m. (or possibly earlier) he was back in his flat, a development that I was able to ascertain by the simple fact that his kitchen blinds were now down and his bedroom blinds up.
I maintained my watching brief over the course of the following days and could report (to myself) that everything was ‘normal’. I had a brief shock one day when all of the blinds were down - living room, kitchen, bedroom - and wondered if he was on the trot again. Then, about one hour later, I noticed that the kitchen blinds and bedroom blinds were up. I breathed a sigh of relief for I had no contingency plan for such an impromptu departure. For I had set my mind on the idea that he would plan his departures to a distinct schedule and that this could only be at 4 a.m. on Thursday mornings. And as he had not departed the previous Thursday he would certainly depart the coming Thursday, that is to say two weeks after his first departure. As with all my calculations, nothing permitted me to believe that this would be the case.
However, I decided that I would be at my station at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning, and duly set my alarm for that time when I retired to my bed on Wednesday night.
It was grey and misty when I dragged my body out of my bed at exactly 4 a.m. the following morning. I put on my dressing gown and went into my spare room. My pulse immediately quickened when I saw that Gordon’s bedroom and living room blinds were down and the lights on behind both, and that the kitchen blinds were up. This signalled to me that he was about to leave. But there was no sign of the man of mystery himself. Then, at 4.10 a.m. he suddenly appeared in the kitchen, and dressed for the road to boot.
I had a sudden brainwave that I would follow him and so needed to quickly get dressed. But first I had an overwhelming need to have a pee. So I rushed off to the bathroom, did what I had to do, then splashed some water in the face and went back to my spare room. To my utter dismay I saw Gordon leaving his building, his haversack on his back, wearing his outdoor coat, and watched him walk past the row of cars and then turn right up the short hill at the side of my block. I tore off my dressing gown and went in search of my clothes. And then I stopped short. ‘What’s the point?’ I said. ‘He’s gone, I’ll never catch him now.’ So I went back to bed and tried to put it out of my head until later.
I got up again at 8 a.m., ate some breakfast, then sat down on my living room sofa to take stock and consider my next move. I assumed that Gordon would be away until the following Wednesday, which meant that I had six days to plan my strategy. ‘The interim is mine,’ as Hamlet said. Six precious days that I must not waste. But what shall I do? What shall I do? My first idea was to break into Gordon’s flat and hack into his computer. Or possibly install a CCTV surveillance camera with a radio link to my own computer in my flat. However, I could see several drawbacks to these actions. For one thing I had never broken into someone’s property in my life and had no real idea of how to go about it. I knew that I would be incapable of picking the lock, so I discarded any notion of that. I could smash the door in, of course, with a sledge hammer, or one of those battering rams much loved by the police. But such an action would hardly escape the attention of the neighbours. And even if I managed to gain ingress, it was way beyond my competence to hack into someone’s computer. And as for installing CCTV with a radio connection to my flat, needless to say I hadn‘t a clue how to do his. So I rejected all the above as promptly as I had conceived them and tried to think up another plan.
It took two cups of milky tea before I finally came up with a plan - and it was a beauty! I decided that what was needed was boots on the ground. I would go to Paris and stake out his apartment, or pied-a-terre as I was now beginning to think of it (I had discarded the notion of a ‘love nest’) at Porte de Clignancourt. After all, if Mohammed won't come to the mountain, the mountain must go to Mohammed! I wasted no time in setting my plan in motion.
I decided he went to Paris every fortnight on the Thursday flight at 7 a.m. So I turned on my wireless router and booted up my laptop. One hour later I had booked my flight, returning the following day, and reserved a room at Porte de Clignancourt in the hotel I had stayed in during my previous sojourn. I felt enlivened, exhilarated even! I even punched the air and shouted aloud: ‘The hunt is on and the game’s afoot!’ I was so excited that I had to have another cup of tea.
I spent the rest of the morning planning my trip, drawing up a shortlist of the items I would have to take with me. I know I was only going for one night, but it’s the kind of man I am. In the afternoon I purchased some currency, and by the evening I had my bag packed, my documents (including my passport) checked and double-checked, and my 9 p.m. I was ready for the off. The ‘off’, of course, was not for almost two weeks. But I did not want to take any chances. Then, drained of all energy, I repaired to my boudoir for the night.
Gordon returned on schedule the following Wednesday, or at least that is when I saw him in his kitchen. In truth, with his living room blinds permanently drawn, and with what I perceived as his almost perpetual sedentary state when chez lui, he may have been back for one day or even several days. There was even the possibility that he had not been anywhere at all. I tried to put such a suggestion out of my mind. After all, in just over one week from now I would unravel the mystery of the man of mystery for ever. I hunkered down for the long wait.
One week later
The long wait slowly passed and on the day of my departure I was awakened at 4 a.m. by my alarm clock. I clenched and unclenched my eyes, yawned, stretched my arms, and got out of bed. I had arranged a taxi for 5 a.m. to take me to the airport. I did not want to risk using the metro in case I ran into Gordon as I did not wish to arouse his suspicions.
I went into my spare room and fondly noticed (fondly is not the word but it will do) that Gordon’s flat was fully lit up in all three rooms and that the arrangement of the blinds was in keeping with an imminent departure, viz. living room and bedroom blinds down and kitchen blinds up. At around 4.10 a.m. I watched him come into his kitchen, then go back into his living room, switching off the kitchen light as he went. Two minutes later (4.12 a.m.) I saw the living light extinguished, and three minutes later (4.15 a.m.) the bedroom light too went out. At 4.17 a.m. he appeared on the stairwell.
All was going exactly as I had planned which filled with confidence. I spent the next 43 minutes getting myself ready for the taxi at 5 a.m. I checked my documents once more, my passport, my currency. I put on my trench coat and picked up my bagpipes, sorry, shoulder bag, picked up my shoulder bag. In case of inclement weather I decided to also wear my bush hat. I was growing concerned when 5.10 a.m. arrived but the taxi had not come, and was on the point of phoning the taxi company when my own telephone rang. It was the taxi driver. I checked that everything was turned off and then went downstairs.
We arrived at the airport at 5.30 a.m., ninety minutes before my flight. I didn’t need to check-in any hold luggage, so I rushed straight to Security. I hunched up my body in an attempt to make myself as small as possible in an attempt to minimise the chances of being spotted by Gordon. I showed my boarding pass and joined the long queue snaking round the room. I assumed that Gordon would have arrived long before me and would therefore be waiting in the queue ahead of me. I raised my head and scanned the passengers waiting patiently in front, but there was no sign of him. ‘He’s probably already in the departure lounge,’ I said to myself.
It took 20 minutes to get through security check. Once in the departure lounge I settled myself in a seat at the periphery of the area but within sight of a boarding screen. As an extra precaution I put on a pair of dark glasses that I had brought with me.
Our flight was on time and we were finally instructed to proceed to the boarding gate. I waited an extra 10 minutes before making my way down.
The boarding gate lounge was crowded by the time I got there but I managed to find a vacant seat. I still had not spotted Gordon. But I was unperturbed by this, indeed I welcomed it on the bizarre logic that if I had not spotted him then he had not spotted me, though I also had to admit that I would have been pretty hard to miss in my trench coat, bush hat and dark glasses. But that's human nature for you. A wonderful thing all right. At least I've heard people say that it is.
After a wait of about 15 minutes, handicapped and elderly passengers, and those with priority boarding, were called to make their way to the gate. When the rest of us were called I ensured that I was the last to go through the gate.
The plane was parked right outside the boarding gate. I boarded at the rear entrance and was seated in what seemed to be the last free seat aboard. Seated next to me was a rather plumb, young woman, with a large bag full of jelly babies in her hand.
I looked down the aircraft to see if I could spot the back of Gordon’s head. The lady next to me held out her bag of jelly babies.
‘Like one?’ she asked.
‘No, thank you,’ I replied. ‘I’m trying to give them up.’
‘Go on, take on,’ the lady persisted.
‘No thank you,’ I replied again.
‘They’re nice. Go on, try on,’ the lady said.
She continued in this vein for several more seconds until I was constrained to tell her where she could shove her jelly babies.
The plane began to taxi and then we were airborne. To my surprise and delight the lady next to me fell asleep almost immediately and remained that way for the entire flight.
We arrived on time and the plane stopped on the apron where buses were waiting to take us to the terminal building. It was at the queue at passport control that I hoped to espy Gordon. But fate transpired once more to frustrate my plans, for all passengers were required to disembark through the door at the front of the plane only. As I was seated at the very back this meant a full 15 minutes delay before I got off the plane. By the time I arrived at passport control there was no sign of my quarry.
I hastened out of the terminal and made my way to the railway station. As I neared the station I noticed there was an express bus at a small bus station with a destination sign GARE DE L‘EST. I needed to be at the Gare du Nord, but the two are almost next to each other, so I decided to hop on the bus, hoping to reach the Gare du Nord before Gordon and thereby head him off at the proverbial pass. So I paid the driver and took a seat in the almost empty bus. To my joy we pulled out almost at once. ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Tally-ho!’ I almost heard myself call out. If I'd had a hunter's horn I swear that I would have blown it.
My elation was short lived. Almost immediately after leaving the airport we turned off into an industrial park and the bus filled up with workers. This was repeated several more times as the bus emptied and filled up again, and it took a full hour to reach the Gare de l’Est. Once there I hurried to the Gare du Nord, bought a metro ticket to Porte de Clignancourt, and squeezed myself aboard a crowded train.
It was midday when I stepped out of the metro station at Porte de Clignancourt. But where should I go now? I had to admit that I had not formulated a plan to deal with this eventuality, so confident had I been of eyeballing Gordon at Charles de Gaulle Airport and tracking him at a discrete distance to his pied-à-terre. I would now have to rely on instinct, hunch and intuition, qualities which I had to admit had never been my strong points. In addition, the streets around me seemed so confusing with people and cars rushing past à la Parisienne. I was also desperately hungry as I had not eaten for over seven hours. So I decided to find a place where I could have a pizza.
Suddenly my fortunes improved. I came across a café-restaurant with a terrace, and right across the road was a large apartment block. Of course I had absolutely no reason to believe that this was the block in which Gordon was now lounging on a chaise-longue and sipping an aperitif. But it seemed to kill two birds with one stone. I could have a pizza and watch the block at the same time, observing the tenants as they went in and out. ‘Yes, I like it!’ I said to myself. And even added: ‘What’s not to like?’ even though I hate the bloody cliché and want to clench my fists and scream aloud every time I hear it. 'What's not to like?' Ugggh!!
I took a seat under a canopy in a position which afforded a good view of the entrance to the apartment block whilst at the same time providing concealment from anyone peering down at the café from one of the windows or balconies. There was a counter just behind me at which a waiter was shucking oysters. I put on my dark glasses. The waiter at the counter came and took my order of a pizza quatro stagioni, beer, and mineral water non-gazeuse.
There was too much salt in the pizza but I ate it and it filled a gap. I spent the next two hours keeping the block under surveillance. In that time only a handful of people went in or came out. I wondered if there was another entrance. I was also getting long looks from the waiter, and so I decided to redeploy to another location. The rest of the afternoon and well into the evening was spent staking out apartment blocks which were conveniently located close to terraced cafés, but my surveillance efforts were fruitless. Finally, as it was getting dark, I decided to make my way to my hotel.
As I was making my merry way, I mean my weary way, and was reaching my destination (which I remembered from my earlier stay), I suddenly heard the piercing sound of klaxons approaching from behind me. I turned around just as two fire engines roared past with their lights flashing. ‘Goodness!’, I said to myself. ‘Hope it’s nothing too serious.’ The fire engines disappeared around a corner and the klaxons immediately went silent. And then it dawned on me that around the corner was exactly where my……..
I hurried around the corner and stood fixated in a state of stupefaction as I watched billows of black smoke gushing out of the windows of my hotel and guests being helped out with blankets over their shoulders. After loudly vociferating several choice obscenities, I turned my back and walked away.
I checked out a couple of hotels in the neighbourhood but they were both full. So I went into the city centre and tried a couple more. ‘Complet, monsieur.’ By now midnight was approaching. But despite the late hour, cars were still rushing past, their horns honking, their radios blaring. Man's most pernicious crime, in my view, among a litany of many, is his incessant frenzy to pollute the silence of the universe, and especially that of the night. And this perhaps accounts for my fascination with Gordon, my perception of him as one who prefers his own silence to the clamour around him.
No sooner had I made this minute observation than I heard a mighty roar of thunder followed almost instantaneously by a torrential downpour.
I was near the river when the heavens opened and scurried down onto the embankment and the shelter of a bridge. As I settled myself down I noticed that there were a number of inert bodies in sleeping bags at the opposite end of the bridge. But I was too weary to be concerned as I could feel my eyes getting more and more heavy. So I lay down and tried to get some sleep.
When I awoke several hours later I saw a figure standing right above me, a man with a hooded coat, the hood concealing most of his head, his dark eyes peering out at me, his chin unshaven and of Middle Eastern countenance.
We reGareed one another with a mixture of silence and suspicion, then the man, in heavily accented English, and in the blunt tone of a man unskilled in the nuances of speaking a language in which he is barely literate, said: ‘What country from?’
If my mind at that moment had not been discombobulated, which as you know, dear reader, can be quite nasty, I could have formulated a ready reply. Luckily, however, I had once undertaken some tests in abstract reasoning and was adjudged to be fairly adept at thinking on my feet. If ever there was a time to put my alleged talents to good use then this was it. I could almost hear the cogs turning inside my head as I considered my response.
I decided at once that I should not disclose my true nationality as the man may attempt to relieve me of my wallet and of my passport. So what nationality could I be? I decided on Belarusian, as Belarus, so far I knew, was not part of the European Union, and so would permit me to pass myself off as an asylum seeker.
I looked up at the man. ‘Belarus… Belarus…. English no good…. Belarus.’
The man squatted down beside me.
‘You want go England?’ he asked.
‘No… no England,’ I replied. ‘Amsterdam. Go Amsterdam.’
‘Amsterdam no good,’ said the man.
‘No, no, is good, good, Amsterdam good,’ I replied.
‘No, England good,’ said the man. ‘Why you go Amsterdam?’
‘Cousin Amsterdam. Two cousin. Two. Go Amsterdam. Amsterdam good,’ I said, and got up onto my feet.
I made my way up the embankment steps. The man followed me.
‘You come England,’ he said. ‘Is good. 500 euro. Back of truck. Is good. Better than Amsterdam. 500 euro. Is cheap.’
‘No, Amsterdam good, two cousin, go Amsterdam. Is good,’ I said.
I realised that I was overdoing the ‘goods’. But I had seen a metro station about 200 yards away into which I could make good my escape.
‘No, you come England. Is good. England good.’
‘No, no, go Amsterdam. Amsterdam good.’
Ideally, and in a perfect world, I would have head-butted him, kicked his legs from under him, and got the boot in a few times. I settled instead for a more banal exit, waited until I was close enough to the metro station, then made a bolt for it.
I made it to the Gare du Nord and on to the airport. In the departure lounge, my dark glasses covering my eyes, I made a brief surveillance of my fellow travellers in the off chance that Gordon was among them. Maybe his hotel had burned down, too. Or his pied-a-terre. But he was nowhere to be seen. I bought a cream bun at a snack bar and enjoyed it so much that I went back and bought another one.
On the plane coming back I was suddenly filled with doubts. Will I ever be able to solve the mystery of Norman the Man of Mystery?
‘Norman? Did you say Norman?’ I said to myself. ’His name isn’t Norman. It’s… it’s….’
I suddenly realised that I had forgotten Gordon’s name. I had to think hard for several minutes and discard several suggestions - Oswald Goldberg, Desmond Donkins, Horatio Higgins, Paddy O’Flaherty - before I remembered that it was Gordon something or other. Clearly I was not in mon assiette, as the French say.
The passenger next to me seemed to detect the mental revolt I was going through.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I er…. don’t like flying,’ I replied.
‘What’s not to like?’ the passenger said.
It took one member of cabin crew and two passengers to restrain me from strangling him.
We took the scenic route to the police station after we had landed and I was charged with common assault onboard an aircraft. When I finally got back home I slept for 10 hours, possibly a record for me.
Gordon was back in his flat the following Wednesday. At least that that was the day that I first spotted him. He may well have been back earlier, or indeed, as previously noted, not been away. For although I had seen no lights between the chinks in his blinds, I was now of the mind that this did not definitively signal that he was not at home. The recognition of this observation made my surveillance of him all the more challenging. I spent most of the days planning my next move.
I discovered that there was a daily flight at 7.15 a.m. to Palma, Majorca. But my lack of intelligence with regard to Gordon’s preferences - viz. was he an art gallery man or did he prefer the beach? - meant that I was no further forward. However, I did reject the notion of jetting off to Palma, though I have to confess that it did cross my mind.
I similarly rejected the idea of hiring a private detective, or the notion of acquiring a drone in the shape and appearance of a pigeon and equipped with an X-ray camera, as well as other such drolleries of which at times my cup runneth over. But most of all my mind at this time became preoccupied with the significance (if any) in the configuration of the blinds in Gordon‘s flat. Here’s how I reasoned. Follow me closely.
There were three sets of blinds, one in the living room, one in the kitchen, and one in the bedroom, though the living room blinds were not blinds properly speaking, but rather curtains, which I chose, for the purpose of the narrative, to call blinds. On Gordon’s nocturnal departures the bedroom blinds and living room blinds were closed, and the kitchen blinds were open. Could this, I wondered, be a signal to a ‘watcher’ on the street below, possibly an agent or accomplice of Gordon, that he was about to depart, in order that the agent or accomplice could ensure that the car, assuming that a car was being deployed, should be ready and waiting at a predetermined location? But such an arrangement would pose many problems, in particular where could the agent or accomplice conceal himself, as the street was narrow and always encumbered with parked vehicles? He could, of course, be concealed in a car already parked on the street, from which he could observe Gordon’s flat. But this would need to be a secondary car with the primary car parked elsewhere. For if this car were the only car, that is, the car to be used for Gordon to effect his departure in, then it could readily be observed by all and sundry, as the street is well lit in a residential area. In addition, the agent or accomplice would also be required to drive the car to the predetermined location, which could alert the suspicions of unwelcome eyes. So what would be needed, it seemed to me, would be a second agent or accomplice to whom the first agent or accomplice could signal Gordon’s imminent departure in order that the second agent or accomplice could have the second car, or primary car, ready and waiting at the predetermined location. But this would pose the dilemma of how the first agent or accomplice could communicate with the second agent or accomplice without attracting attention. A possible solution would be for the agent or accomplice to be accompanied by a ‘runner’, who could slip unperceived out of the car, and, using the parked cars for cover, make his way stealthily to the corner of the street, and then run as fast as his legs could carry him to the predetermined location, where the second agent or accomplice was waiting with the second car ready and waiting for Gordon’s arrival. And to aid in this design, should not the ‘runner’ of necessity be a child, or a dwarf, in order to minimise the chance of detection by minimising the size of his bulk? But there was also the question of when and how the predetermined location was predetermined. For it would not be in Gordon’s interest, if he wished to execute a surreptitious departure, that the location of the predetermined location be known to those from whom he wished to conceal his departure. In this respect, it seemed to me, there could needs be a number of different locations to serve in turn as the one predetermined at a particular time, and that the designation of each could be determined using a rota system, so that Predetermined Location A (for instance) could be the predetermined location one fortnight (assuming that Gordon maintained his fortnightly nocturnal departures), followed by Predetermined Location B a fortnight later, followed by Predetermined Location C a fortnight after that. But would it not be more beneficial, in order to maintain secrecy and minimize detection, that Gordon, rather than following a strict rota system under which the predetermined locations, A, B and C, would be used turn and turn about, should decide at the moment of his departure which of the predetermined locations, A, B and C, he would use that time? In which case there would needs be three runners concealed in the car of the watcher, or first agent or accomplice, and each runner, when the signal with the blinds had been given, should depart post haste to his predetermined location, A, B or C, in order that the cars should be ready and waiting for Gordon’s arrival. But there was one grave drawback in my consideration of this scenario as the possible modus operandi utilized by Gordon, and it was this, that in my surveillance of Gordon’s flat on the nights of his nocturnal departures I had not noticed any children or dwarfs stealthily rushing in diverse directions the ones from the others. But in any case would not the simplest solution of all be for the first agent or accomplice to alert the agents or accomplices at Predetermined Locations A, B and C of Gordon’s imminent departure by means of a call or a text message to their mobile phones? Or could Gordon himself not instigate such a communication direct to the agent or accomplice, A, B or C, at the predetermined location he had chosen for his departure? Under which occurrence there would be no need of a watcher, or of a runner or runners. But Gordon did not seem to me like the kind of man who would entrust himself to telephone or text messages as such communications could be intercepted. Nor was I even certain that Gordon would know how to transmit a text message, though, as already noted, I knew precious little about him, and the little I did know, or thought I knew, could easily have been wrong. But in any case this was all bollocks! For all that an interested party would need to do would be to follow Gordon when he left on his nocturnal departure.
And so I decided that this is what I must do when he next weighed anchor, which I assumed would be two weeks later. But then, from out of the blue, an event happened that I had not foreseen, and was of such magnitude that it caused actual physical damage to myself.
The event occurred two days after Gordon’s return, therefore a Friday. I was walking back to my flat at the end of my habitual and sadly predictable early evening stroll, when I looked across the street and saw Gordon crossing to my side. Our paths were inevitably going to cross. We exchanged nods and then walked side by side towards our respective blocks.
I knew that it was an opportunity that I could not miss to gain some invaluable intelligence, so I casually said to him: ‘I was in Paris last week.’
Gordon looked at me and smiled and I noticed that his front teeth were missing.
‘Nice city Paris,’ I continued. ‘Ever er… been there yourself… at all?’
‘No,’ he said.
His reply knocked me totally out of kilter, so much so that I walked straight into a wheely bin and banged my thigh.
I exclaimed aloud and Gordon looked at me and smiled. I clutched my leg and at the same time gestured to Gordon that I was all right. He turned and continued on his way.
I hobbled back to my flat and examined the bruise on my right thigh. I had an early night that night and had a strange dream.
In my dream I was walking along the pavement and turned to see Gordon crossing the road towards me as he had been when I‘d seen him. He was dressed in a bright green suit with a carnation button hole, and was wearing a Panama hat. In one hand he had a cane with an ebony handle and in the other hand a large, smoking cigar. As he approached he gave me a wide smile and his gleaming teeth sparkled in the sunshine. He rubbed his belly with his cigar hand and said in a loud, crisp voice: ‘Ah, replete with a bellyful of the old prog, there’s contentedness for a man!’
I then watched him as he walked away conducting an imaginary orchestra with his right arm.
My dream haunted me for several days and at times the two images of Gordon became so immersed the one into the other that I was unable to distinguish the real Gordon from the Gordon of the dream which added to the aura of the mystery surrounding him. More than ever I had to get the bottom of it and I knew that my only resource was to follow him when his next departure was scheduled, that is in 12 days time. I marked the date in my diary with the note: Mem. follow G.
Thursday morning 12 days later
I was up and dressed by 4 a.m. in my trench coat and bush hat. Gordon’s flat was lit up and the blinds set in keeping with an imminent departure, and indeed I had seen him moving in and out of his kitchen. Then, at 4.17 a.m. precisely, I watched the living room light go out, followed a minute later by the bedroom light. It was the cue I had been waiting for. I went out of my flat, locked the door, and then went through the fire door and onto the stairwell. From the stairwell I would have a good view of Gordon as he ascended the hill at the side of my block. I tried to position myself so that I could see Gordon but not be seen by him.
A few moments later I observed him walk past, his slow, methodical tread like the faithful donkey carrying Mary and the infant on the flight into Egypt. I waited until he was lost from view behind the houses, then made my way hurriedly down the stairwell and onto the street. I quickly caught him up and maintained a distance of about 100 yards between us.
It was drizzling a little but I was well protected under my trench coat and bush hat. Gordon rounded the corner and disappeared from view. I quickly located him and kept my distance. He crossed the road, walked the short distance to the end, and then turned the corner. I followed after. But when I reached the corner I noticed Gordon standing stock still at a junction about 20 feet in front of me. I felt my pulse race. ‘What shall I do? If he turns he can’t help but see me.’ I cast around for a place to hide. Behind me, on the other side of the road, was a small, grassy area with a large tree. If I could make it to there I could hide behind the tree. Not wanting to take my eyes off Gordon in case he turned and saw me, I walked backwards across the road until I reached the tree. Then I ducked behind it.
I waited a few seconds, then peered out from behind the tree. Gordon was still standing there. ‘What is he doing?’ I asked myself. I pulled my head back and was suddenly confronted with a lady standing in front of me, small, stout, sober, face like a wizened sweet potato. With her her dog, Jack Russell, upright on his hind legs, held there by the pull of his lead, and yelping, yelping. I turned my body sideways to the beast fearing for my testicles. What were they doing out at this hour of the morning? Had they no home to go to? Maybe I'll investigate once the affair of Gordon has been classified. 'Come along, Sammy,' the lady finally said. I thought at first that she was talking to me. But my name is not Sammy. I forget at times what it is, but the lady could call me Sammy if she wanted to, and I would follow her home and lie in my basket and she could pat me and pet me and feed me with cream buns, sausage rolls and bottles of beer. She led Sammy away, tugging on his lead, until they disappeared into the early morning gloom. When I looked again from behind the tree Gordon was gone.
I walked quickly across the road and reached the junction. The turning to the left continued around a bend as did the turning to the right. There was no sign of Gordon in either direction. Which turning would he have taken? As fate would have it, both turnings lead to metro stations, the one further down the track than the other. In addition, they were equidistance from where I was standing. He could therefore follow either one for a train to the airport. Not for the first time I was nonplussed. Which way shall I go? Right? Left? Left? Right?
I was pondering my options when I heard a voice inside me tell me: ‘Give it up, old lad. Go home. Get some sleep. Leave him alone. He’s only living his life. Give it up. Go home.’
After a moment’s hesitation I turned and made my way back to my flat.
I went back to bed and lay in the dark. The voice was right. I felt ashamed. Following people, spying on them. Surveillance pigeon-drones, private detectives. Assaulting travellers, sleeping under bridges and hiding behind trees. Why do I do all this? And then it suddenly dawned on me that I too am a man of mystery, even to myself.
Gordon returned the following Monday, at least that was when I noticed him in his kitchen. But I did not dwell on the fact that he was back two days sooner than usual. It no longer mattered any more. For I had decided on an action to put an end to this absurd drama once and for all. For it was indeed absurd and so it was fitting that the end too should be equally absurd. For everything ends in absurdity. So two days later, at 9 p.m. precisely, I closed the living room blinds, I thing which I never ever do, and retired to my bed chamber for the night.
The next morning (Thursday) at 4 a.m.
I walked into my kitchen where the blinds were up. I was wearing my bush hat and trench coat. I glanced in the direction of the block opposite. ‘Is anyone watching me?’ I wondered. I checked that everything was turned off in the kitchen and then killed the light. I went through into the living room and walked to the door leading into the passage. I turned off the living room light and walked down the passage to my bedroom. I collected my shoulder bag and then turned off the bedroom light.
I went out of the flat and locked the door behind me, then I made my way down the stairwell stairs. I was going. It didn’t matter where. Maybe I would run into Gordon and we could play chess together and listen to Chopin and discuss the poetic works of Guillaume Apollinaire. The air was chilly when I got outside so I pulled my trench coat around me. I didn’t know where I was going. My shoulder bag didn’t weigh me down. Just a few necessaries, nothing more. I walked up the street and around the corner. I passed the tree that I had hidden behind. What was it? A birch? An elm? An oak? I came to the junction. Which way should I go? I had three choices, I could go the left, I could go to the right, or I could return the way I had come. I stood motionless and pondered my options. Five minutes elapsed before I decided. I pulled my trench coat around me, secured my bag on my shoulder, and took one last look around me. Then I put my best foot forward. And I was gone.