he: A NovelJohn Connolly
Also by John Connolly
Also by John Connolly
THE CHARLIE PARKER STORIES
Every Dead Thing
The Killing Kind
The White Road
The Reflecting Eye
(Novella in the Nocturnes Collection)
The Black Angel
The Burning Soul
The Wrath of Angels
The Wolf in Winter
A Song of Shadows
A Time of Torment
A Game of Ghosts
The Book of Lost Things
Night Music: Nocturnes Volume II
THE SAMUEL JOHNSON STORIES
(FOR YOUNG ADULTS)
THE CHRONICLES OF THE INVADERS
(WITH JENNIFER RIDYARD)
Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels
(as editor, with Declan Burke)
Parker: A Miscellany
First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Bad Dog Books Limited 2017
The right of John Connolly to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
rs in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 473 66364 0
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
For Jennie, with love
And the heart has become so tired, and the longing so vast.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
At the Oceana Apartments, at the dawning of the last days, he chases butterfly memories.
Through the open window comes the sound of breaking waves. He has always loved the sea, long captive to its amniotic pull. So he lives here in this small apartment,
lives here in Santa Monica,
lives here with his wife,
lives here with the dream of who he was and the reality of what he has become.
He is old. He will not live much longer, here or anywhere else.
On this, the last set of his life – the walls, and the ocean behind – he is missing his marks. He is faltering in the final steps of the dance. The enchained recollections of his life have begun to slip away, until soon he will no longer have the power to bring to mind even his own name. So he tries to hold on to his memories, because each one that escapes, never to be recovered, represents a further dissolution of the self.
When all the memories have departed, so too will he.
The dead have no recall.
He was famous once.
No, he and Babe were famous once. But now Babe is gone, and he is alone.
Every regret in his life holds the echo of this name.
He can remember meeting Babe, and he can remember losing Babe, but the events between are like paints imperfectly mixed, swirls of color and texture, each representing a single, beautifully ordinary day, a conversation perfect in its inconsequence, a moment of transitory joy, its essence both preserved yet elusive.
These remembrances are gemstones tumbling to the ground, shattering on impact. He struggles to retrieve the fragments, to maintain his hold upon them and comprehend their disparate meanings.
These remembrances are snowflakes swirling in his path. They melt in his hand at the instant of connection, so that he is left only with the chill of loss.
These remembrances are flickering images on a screen.
Two figures in a dance eternal.
He and Babe.
Now only he.
The mind is a theater. It cannot be allowed to go dark. It must be maintained.
This is what his father does, Arthur Jefferson, his sire; a rescuer, a restorer, a proprietor of auditoriums in British towns. He bears A.J.’s name for more than half of his own life, and A.J.’s features for much longer. He becomes a simulacrum of A.J., and A.J.’s disappointment in him is compounded as a consequence.
He is a child, eclipsed by his father’s shadow.
Now he, this child, is watching A.J. as A.J. stands in the Eden in Bishop Auckland, admiring the new lights, the upholstered rows, the gilded paintwork, just as A.J. will stand in the Royal in Consett
in the Royal in Blyth
in the Tynemouth Circus in North Shields
in the Metropole in Glasgow
(because, A.J. will tell him, there is a rhythm to names, and a poetry to places)
each one saved from the dark by A.J. the impresario, A.J. the dramatist, who invents plays to draw the crowds to his venues, words tumbling from him so fast that A.J. can barely write quickly enough to bind them to the page before they drift away. But A.J.’s ideas are light, and only verbiage lends them weight. Slowly A.J. learns. A.J. is no playwright. The dramas cease, to be replaced by sketches and skits.
All this he witnesses, boy and young man, this moon to A.J’s sun, and in attic rooms he practices his stage routines before empty seats and the scrutiny of mannequins.
It is 1906.
Pickard’s Museum, the Panopticon; formerly the Britannia Music Hall, and the haunt of whores. Old, even by the standards of these places, and hard with it, but Glasgow was always this way.
A.E. Pickard, with his Van Dyke beard and cutaway suit, will install waxworks in the Panopticon, and a carnival. A.E. Pickard, with his distorting mirrors and images of Chinese torture, will install a freak show in the Panopticon, and a zoo. The shadows of the Panopticon, the Pots & Pans, will smell of hay and shit, and the despair of human and animal alike.
He is the bonus on this night, the extra turn, no billing. He is sixteen years old, and is wearing clothes liberated from A.J. He shortens and patches, he tucks and cuts, all in the same room in which he perfects his turns. Only the coat he leaves untouched, because it is his father’s best.
He blinks against the lights in this primitive place. No seats in a room that can billet only a trio for musical accompaniment, and poor scrapings at that: laced ladies who smell of sherry and mothballs, and struggle to make their instruments heard above the clamor of the Audience.
He begins. In that moment he loses himself, and will never be found again.
And the Audience laughs: not against him but with him, like the wind blowing in a well-turned sail; and he feeds upon it, and it washes over him as the many become one, harmonizing in their joy.
Only as he takes his bow does he see his father.
It is amateur night. A.J. has come to sup with A.E. Pickard, and perhaps to seek out new meat for his own grinder. What A.J. witnesses is his son in borrowed threads – a familiar coat, a top hat fresh from the box – cavorting unexpectedly on a dusty stage for the drunks and the catcallers.
He cannot read the expression on A.J.’s face, but he knows that A.J. has no tolerance for secrets, gives no succor to indiscipline. He runs, but not to his mother, not to Madge.
(And later, as he tries to recall the scent and the beauty of her; and later, as he searches in vain for her grave, its marker lost; and later, on the set of the Oceana Apartments, he will think that he should have run to Madge more often, because as he treads the boards of Pickard’s Museum the final sands are already funneling through the hourglass of his mother’s life, and she will be dead within two years.)
So he does not seek safety at home, behind Madge’s skirts. He ventures to the Metropole, A.J.’s lair. He will confront the old lion in its den.
A.J. is waiting for him, waiting for him to explain the ruined trousers, waiting for him to explain the purloined coat. The top hat is gone; he loses it in his flight from the stage, and the pianist crushes it beneath his boot and displays the remains for the amusement of the Audience, believing it to be a prop, a dud, and not A.J.’s beloved handmade silk hat.
A.J. summons him to the office. A.J. is already drinking a whisky and soda. This does not bode well.
The gags, says A.J. Where did you get the gags?
And he shares with A.J. the attic rooms, the hours spent honing each line, each step, reflected only in a dusty mirror and the dead eyes of dolls. And he shares with A.J. the sallies stolen from Boy Glen and Nipper Lane. And he shares with A.J. the routines that he alone has created, these poor imitations, these counterfeit claims.
A.J. listens. A.J. does not speak.
He wants to remind A.J. that they laughed. The Audience, those hard men and women of Glasgow – no turn left unstoned – laughed.
I heard them, says A.J., although he has not yet spoken to A.J. of the laughter. I was there. I witnessed all.
He starts to cry.
He signs on with A.J.’s company for £1.5/- a week.
A.J. says that he still owes him a top hat.
At the Oceana Apartments, he is with Babe.
Babe is dead.
But Babe is always with him.
It is long before the dead days, and he and Babe are walking to
gether in New York. Babe stops to speak with the son of a shoeshine man, Babe’s face a beacon of delight. Now Babe can run his routine.
Babe tells the boy that Babe also was born in Harlem, and the boy, already in thrall to this man familiar from the screens of the black-only theaters, can do no more than gaze in further wonder as Babe feeds the punchline.
– Harlem, Georgia!
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.
Babe laughs, and the boy laughs with him, and Babe tips the father a dollar and gives the son a dollar too, because the gag was worth it.
But then, Babe has always been a soft touch.
He and Babe walk on.
Would the shoeshine man and his son have laughed as hard or as loud, he wonders, if they knew that Oliver Hardy – Babe’s father, his progenitor – lies buried down in Harlem, Georgia alongside his second wife, the sister of the Magruder plantation heirs, and therefore slave owners also; or that Babe’s father was an overseer, a middleman, employed to keep the darkies subdued and their masters satisfied, and a former soldier who served willingly in the Confederate army under Captain Joshua Boyd as part of Ramsey’s Volunteers, only to be wounded for his trouble in the Battle of Antietam?
Oliver Hardy died in the year of Babe’s birth, so Babe never knew him, but every man lives his life touched by intimations of his father, and none more so than Babe, because in form and demeanor Babe is his father’s son. He has been shown by Babe the photograph of the patriarch, is aware of the resemblance. He has read the treasured cutting from the Columbia paper describing Babe’s father: ‘open, jolly, funful … covered all over with smiles … lives to eat, or eats to live … this Falstaffian figure.’
Babe should have played Falstaff, he thinks. No matter.
So Babe laughs heartily, and tips every man well regardless of his color, all in order that Babe may not be mistaken for someone of the Confederate stripe, even as Babe assumes his father’s first name while his own – Norvell – is reduced to a letter in his signature, a half-forgotten N.
So much about Babe is hidden behind that N, because Babe –
like all comics
– does not really exist. Babe acquiesces in the myths peddled by a succession of motion picture studios, just as Babe, under examination, will relegate his status from actor to that of gagman, golfer, and good fellow. Babe will speak of a father who was a lawyer, and of ancestors who knew Lord Nelson, and will not blush at these falsehoods. Babe will permit himself to be acclaimed as a law graduate of the University of Georgia, even if Babe no more studied law than his father did, all to add mantles to his being. Babe will be fat, because Babe must be, and jolly, because Babe must be, and Babe will spin fantasies like cotton candy and feed them to the masses.