Summoned From Limbo
Aubrey explained that the Lodge was his own property, and it had been so since he was eighteen. For many years, however, up until when he settled down with Luda, he’d rented it out; preferring to gad about the world, not giving the place a second thought. Bewilderingly, his father had given him the place following a big argument between them.
Originally, the estate gamekeeper and his family had lived in the Lodge, and his father too before him. While Aubrey was growing up, Tom Pike had taken an interest in the boy; showing him how to set traps for rabbits, fire a shotgun, track deer without being scented, and the knack of moving silently through woodland while leaving no trace. They’d share freshly-caught trout cooked over a camp fire and gather berries from the hedgerows together. Tom’s keen understanding of the wildlife in the area, and a love too for the acres surrounding his home, rubbed off on Aubrey.
“Tom was a bright chap. Apparently, he’d won a scholarship to the local grammar but his parents thought he’d be rising above himself, so he had to toddle off to the state school instead. Once he turned fifteen he left and came to work at the Hall, eventually inheriting his father’s job as gamekeeper; living here with his family. I think he was rather frustrated with his lot. He always had a book on the go when we were laid up for hours stalking some creature or other. Anyway, his reading turned out to be his undoing.”
Nero returned a now practised furrowed forehead.
“The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist was a real eye-opener for him. It must have been around the late ’50s; it was all Cold War and communism back then. You know, much talk of hard-hearted exploitation of the workers by the bosses and unquestioning deference and respect for so-called social betters, et cetera.”
“Sounds fair enough to me.”
“But remember the times back then; they were still far from a changing, especially somewhere like here. In father’s world, the equilibrium was maintained by everyone knowing their place, especially in his own household. His feet were still firmly planted in feudal fields. With poor Tom, his idealism blinded him to the reality of it all. When he discovered Tom was a member of the Labour Party, father interpreted it as a complete affront to his dominion; an ungrateful undermining of his absolute authority, as it were. So he simply sacked the poor bugger on the spot; ordered him and his family to leave by the end of the week. I can still picture father haranguing us over how he believed that he was generous in not demanding they leave right away.”
“But surely it couldn’t have been legal, to just kick him out of his job for what he believed in?”
“It was a different age, old chap. Mother pleaded with him to let them stay – so did I; he was my friend. But that was it, He had spoken.”
“So what happened to them?”
“Father had put word out amongst his cronies not to employ him, and he had some influence too at the County Council to stop them getting accommodation.”
“But wasn’t it all a bit heavy-handed?”
“I believe he thought he was cutting out the cancer, so that Tom’s ideas wouldn’t contaminate the other staff – or anyone in the county for that matter.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, to the woods for a while; holed-up in a sort of den Tom had made out of some bent sticks and an old tarpaulin.”
“Absolutely. Of course, they couldn’t exist like that for any length of time; it was the middle of winter too. Tom tried to make a go of it for a while but his wife and the boy moved out – his lad went and did his National Service; the Army, I think. The last I heard of Tom was that he’d taken to drink and was in and out of shelters for the homeless. Father had broken him.”
“So the two of you clashed after that?”
“I came to completely hate the man. He was a monster masquerading as some kind of beneficent lord and master. I grew to detest everything he stood for and believed in. He wanted Roger and me to be just like him, to continue the pattern of unearned privilege.”
“Your father must have realised you weren’t up for it by then.”
“He was relieved of course that his heir hadn’t been tainted by my dissent; the Hall would be safe in my brother’s hands. But he cut me out of any future inheritance; I wouldn’t receive a penny piece.”
“So you ended up like the rest of us.”
“In truth of course, at eighteen, I had very little concept of what the real world was like out there. One thing my kind of background provides you with is a wonderful set of armour; a self-assurance, I suppose, that tends to shrug off the concerns others fret over. A little like always knowing you have a safety net – except of course I’d now lost mine. But once the inclination is there...”
“So did you do leave home?”
“Not right away, no. That was the odd thing. Father said that if Pike was so important to me then I ought to try doing his job, and live in the Lodge too; it was mine. I think in his own way he was offering me a last chance to prove myself and not leave me destitute like Tom, but in such a way that he wouldn’t lose face.”
“But keeping you at arm’s length?”
“Yes, something like that. I tried it for a while but it didn’t work out; we were simply arguing too much. My brother Roger helped though; gave me a modest allowance from the dosh father handed out to him every year, and sorted me out with a friend of a friend who ran a photographic agency in London.”
“So you were already into photography back then?”
“Not at the time, no. It was simply a job. But I rather took to it. They started me out in the labs, processing the film – a general dogsbody, really – then got to assist out on assignments around the country, and then abroad. That’s when I got both bugs: travel, and taking pictures.”
“Sounds an interesting sort of life you had.”
“Well, yes, I have to admit it was quite agreeable, especially for a young man. It was a fascinating time.”
”I bet, yeah.”
”Actually, I also got involved in a little modelling myself, in a small way – I was quite a handsome youth at the time. You can see for yourself; over there on the bookcase, the second shelf down. Luda likes that picture.”
Nero stood up and leant over to the framed photo, which was half-obscured by the brittle, browned leaves of an under-watered trailing plant. Aubrey in his pomp radiated a lofty detachment; his pale, thin face framed by a modish mop of long, dark-brown hair; a gentle flare to his tight trousers, with pointy Chelsea boots peeping out beneath them.
”What, wearing the plasticky, orange mac, with the two dogs?”
“Yes, a pair of pedigree Salukis. I think it must have been around ’67. Freezing cold morning in St. James’s Park. By the time I became a photographer – it was just on the cusp of the ‘Swinging London’ era – the old guard, Beaton and such, were being swept aside by all these brash upstarts like Bailey, Duffy and the like. And of course one got to meet some ravishing women.”
“’I’ve always thought it must have been a brilliant time to have been around. I mean, I was, but only a kid. It seemed like another world; sort of out of reach.”
“Yes, it was for most, and for me too at first. But it’s surprising how quickly the exotic comes to feel normal once one begins to hobnob with the likes of actors, impresarios, minor royalty and such – though I never really took to it all. From what you were saying before, I expect you must have had your own taste of it to some extent?”
“Not really. It was mostly just other musicians, when we were on tour, or who we’d meet in the studio; that kind of thing. We played down the bill to some well known ones, got to hang-out with a few –”
At this moment the telephone rang. It was Luda calling from Harwich. Aubrey was clearly relieved and excited to hear from her. While they chatted, Nero decided to examine the contents of the bookshelf as he replaced the framed photo. It was an eclectic mix, seemingly not arranged in order of either author name or theme. Therefore, The Organic Directory sat next to a French phrase book, which in turn sat next to Taxidermy for Beginners. Glancing at the shelf above would reveal subjects ranging from the Mabinogion, various fashion source-books, The Essential Spike Milligan and Ginsberg’s Howl.
Nero was mid-leaf through a large coffee table-sized volume of vintage guitars when Aubrey asked him if he’d like to see some more of his photographs.
“I don’t keep them all here – Roger kindly lets me store the bulk of them in the old ice house up at the Hall – but I keep some of my favourites close to hand.”
Aubrey proceeded to unlock a battered filing cabinet in the corner of the room near his desk. He slid open the top drawer to reveal densely-packed brown card folders, jammed in so tight that he had difficulty in pulling the first one out.
“Ah, these are from my first trip to Marrakesh. This one’s of the pool at the Tichka. It was the year before The Rolling Stones arrived, when it suddenly got fashionable to visit. And these are of some of the local musicians.”
“Amazing, yeah. It was the Stones and Zep who got me into that kind of thing, with my music; that trance sound.”
“Really? There was a timelessness to it; that as we were watching those musicians around that camp-fire we could have been witnessing a scene from any point during the last five-hundred years or more...”
Aubrey drew folder after folder from the drawer. The architecture and costumes changed with the array of countries and continents he’d visited over the course of his career: most of Europe, Mongolia, Australia, Japan, Brazil and the United States. Nero barely noticed the hours passing as Aubrey told a tale connected with each batch he selected.
“Now these might interest you. They are what you might call my recent hobby.”
Attempting to remain poker-faced, but grinning widely, Aubrey unlocked and opened the next drawer down of the filing cabinet.
“You don’t appear to be a stuffed-shirt kind of chap to me, so see what you think.”
Aubrey grabbed a handful of folders and deposited them onto the dining table. It quickly became apparent to Nero that the subject matter had altered dramatically from what he’d seen up to this point. They were clearly all women of various ages and in various states of undress. None really came into the category of “glamorous”; most were ordinary-looking and none approaching size-zero. They certainly weren’t pornographic, but instead rather cheeky and spontaneous; simply of women doing everyday things like hoovering, cooking in the kitchen, gardening – but all in the nip, or at least topless. Saucy snaps, really; similar in style to the Women’s Institute-type calendars of naked village residents coyly hiding their nudity behind vases of flowers or a large cake, except in this case their naughty bits were in full view. Aubrey took an impish delight in watching Nero’s reaction and growing awkwardness.
“Isn’t that your back garden she’s standing in?” he remarked while looking at a large-breasted, stocky woman in her fifties pushing a lawnmower.
“It is, yes; well-spotted. All of the pictures in that pile are from the D cup section. What I do is break them down further within the folder according to nipple position and size.”
By now Nero looked utterly baffled.
Aubrey responded with an expression of fabricated innocence. “I expect you now see me as some kind of deviant.”
“Well, no, but I don’t understand why you...”
“Yes, an understandable reaction. I’ll explain. Luda and me haven’t been able to have proper sex now for a few years; not since the old chap went floppy. Of course I saw plenty of doctors about it. They tried me on the little blue pills, changed my diet; all kinds of tests, but nothing worked; couldn’t raise Lazarus from the dead, “ he quipped with an empty chortle “I was getting very frustrated of course, and so too was Luda; sex had always been an important part of our life together. I even tried one of those strap-on things, but we just ended up falling about in hysterics. I take it you’re not cursed yourself ?”
Nero peered down at his groin. “No, thankfully everything still seems to be working all right.” he replied, attempting to disguise a distinct unease with the course that the conversation appeared to be taking.
“Good, good. Well anyway, it was too much to expect Luda to simply go without any proper satisfaction, so we came to an arrangement – at my own prompting I might add – that she must find a ‘lover’ to take care of her... physical needs. It was silly of me really. I feared it might mean the end of us otherwise. We’re still very much in love. After a little while she found a young chap in the village; works at the garage; not a bad medium-paced bowler, actually. So with him and a couple of others here and there, we’ve trundled along quite nicely since.”
”I don’t think many couples could make it work, not without the green monster rearing its head.’”
”Quite. Personally I put it down to overuse.”
“Well, I think the honourable member was worn-out by overuse, that’s my personal opinion,” he said with a resigned smile. “Before Luda came along I was something of a libertine in that regard – perhaps a little difficult to believe, looking at me now. No, I think it was partly down to the fact that I genuinely enjoyed the company of women. Seduction took its natural course.”
“And going by those pictures of you, your looks must helped too, yeah?”
“So I’m told. But I’ve known plenty of ordinary, if not down right ugly, men able to entice the most gorgeous of creatures; so I think looks were only partly to do with it.”
“No, you’re right. I just feel that I haven’t really had my fair share though, that’s all. If it’s not rude, how many women do you think you’ve slept with over the years?”
“Of course, a gentleman never tells – so on that basis I should spill the beans quite readily. Really, I’ve never counted, but it’s likely to be an absurd figure... in the hundreds I should think.”
Nero appeared deflated, scratching the back of his neck as he looked down at the carpet and totted up his own total. It didn’t take long.
“Nine, that’s all. It’s not many in almost fifty years, is it? Though I suppose it’s more like thirty-five years if you take it from when I first –”
“It sounds a little too much like a competition the way you put it; not exactly the pursuit of romance.”
“You know what I mean, though...”
“I should imagine there are plenty of men who’ve had fewer.”
“Yes, but they probably live in monasteries.”
“Fair point, yes. So, getting back to these photographs – this one’s of Brenda from the Post Office. Now this is going to come across as extremely adolescent, but the reason I approach these ladies is that I simply adore breasts: breasts in all shapes and sizes – though perhaps not the knee-knocker variety. I suppose it’s intensified since I’ve been unable perform, but it’s always been there. I enjoy looking at big ones, small ones, upturned nipples on fried-eggs, those that point out to one side, down...”
Unable to think of a suitable reply, Nero flipped through the A cup section; first of all looking at a young woman sitting at a computer in an office; and then, someone he recognised. He rotated the print around for Aubrey to see.
“But isn’t that Lori?”
“Yes, in the Half Lotus position by the look of it; I managed to catch her after one of her Yoga classes. Excellent muscle tone for her age, hasn’t she?”
“Yes... but what does Simon think? Does he know?”
“Of course, I gave her a copy for him to see. Her breasts are quite small, but they’re less likely to succumb to gravity. I’ve noticed she doesn’t even wear a bra.”
“And there are all these of Luda, too.”
“Again, modestly-sized, but a lovely, almost conical shape to them, don’t you think. Now this one is Angela, Roger’s PA over at the Hall.”
Nero shook his head in an exaggerated fashion and smiled at the old rogue.
“Is there any woman in a ten-mile radius you haven’t photographed like this?”
“I know it must seem that way. I’ll take you over to see the place tomorrow; I think Roger’s at home for once.”
“I’ve just remembered – never mind all this – you wanted to see my book, didn’t you...“
“Yes, I would.”
“Now if you wander back over to where you were, I think it’s keeping Colin Wilson company – the second shelf down, on the far left. It’s blue.”
The title font of How to Survive in a Sick Society resembled letters branded onto the rough wood of a military flight-case, in the manner of numerous guides on how to persevere in a post-apocalyptic world. Nero removed the hardback from between its neighbours and leafed through it from the back. Aubrey arrived from the other side of the room and bent down to examine the bookshelf and then stood up again and smiled at Nero.
“I was reading Wilson the other day. He observed the way that most of us go about our lives as if we are asleep. When we are children, starting to experience new things, learning new tasks, we are stimulated by everything around us. But then of course we quickly learn to see the patterns, know what to expect where – that’s when the robot takes over. For instance, like with making the meal earlier: the first time you try it you’re concentrating on getting the proportions of the ingredients correct; cooking it at the right heat for the right length of time, yes?”
Nero agreed hesitantly. “I suppose so.”
“Once you’ve done that a few times it becomes mechanical – like typing, making tea, and so on – and you unconsciously switch off; the robot, like a servant, takes over and does it without you having to think about it.”
“Like with driving, or with the guitar? I find myself playing the same chords and licks when I pick it up.”
“Yes, exactly that. We want the robot to do that for us when it comes to all the dreary, repetitive tasks we do all the time, though not with the things we want to savour, like with food, music, films – or lovemaking.”
Nero sat back down into the armchair he’d vacated earlier. “I think I know what you mean. We sort of get into habits, go into automatic?”
Aubrey returned to his chair too, dropping down on the cushion with a slight twinge-induced groan. “That’s it. But when we feel we’re in a dangerous situation, or uncertain, we are concentrating fully and the robot is switched off. In wartime, for instance, you hear how people felt they could die at any moment, so their senses were heightened over a long period of time – in the midst of death, and so on... They felt more alive.”
“So we’ve got to feel in danger to feel good?”
“Well, no, not as extreme as that. What I’m saying is that we must avoid slipping into that non-aware, drifting state where we are not really living. For instance, would you say you are living more intensely now than this time last week?”
“Yes. But I don’t feel good. I can’t stop thinking about what might happen to me.”
“And what about a week ago?”
“I don’t know; I can’t really remember. Just did my job, went home –“
“You were switched off, just going through the motions.”
“But I can’t see how knowing that helps me now.”
“Look, I imagine you feel that if you could pay all this money back to that boss of yours everything would be fine again, yes?
“Well he’d be off my back, but I’d still have no job or anywhere to live.”
“That’s it. You seem to be mired in despondency. You’re looking at the situation as if it’s at the end of your nose; you can see nothing else.”
Nero was now looking anxious, wringing his hands and becoming breathless as he spoke. “But that’s how it is. If I don’t pay, I dread to think what he might do if he gets hold of me.”
“I’m saying that it might be worth trying to pull back from the situation you’re in. Look at it from further out. The world is a big place; billions of people out there, many with problems a lot worse than yours. I’m not trying to devalue the fix you’re in, that it’s unimportant, simply that you should try and find some perspective if you can.”
“But Aubrey, what you’re telling me doesn’t get me out of the situation. I feel like I’m on the run from Dixey.”
“Look, old chap, I realise that what you’re experiencing must seem very real and wretched, and that you don’t have many options, but you’ve made one important decision in getting away from your old life. I believe you’ve been looking for a reason to do so even before all this blew up. Am I right?”
“Yes, but I was happy enough in Oxford. I didn’t need to up-sticks – if all this hadn’t happened.“
“The impression you’ve given me so far is that you were in a bit of a rut living there, and hated your job. Is there a woman in your life?”
“No. Not for ages.”
“So you’ve really got nothing to lose.”
“Only my knee caps if he catches me!”
“Look, he can’t know you’re here. At least for the time being you’re safe. So why not let’s try and get you back on an even keel during your stay?”
“I suppose so, but God knows how.”
“Well, I don’t know about God, but we need to find some positive energy from inside you to work with. The book might be a start, and I know a few people around here it might be well worth you talking to for a few ideas. It’s like with Luda’s old computer that’s always freezing up. She turns it off and then back on again to get it working.”
“So you’ve got one here then; could I go on it for a short while? I’ve got something to look up.”
“Certainly you can. But it won’t be much use to you for the internet; we’ve only got a dial-up connection here. It takes around half an hour just to send an email.
Nero was visibly dejected at the news. “Oh, right.”
“But I’m sure Angela over at the Hall would let you have a go on the one in the office – if you ask nicely.