When I first woke, that night of my ordeal, I lay as much in a state of incredulity as of fear. Propped on one elbow, I surveyed the darkened room, then listened on with straining ears. Yet still reason told me that what I feared was a thousand times more probable in London than where I actually found myself. I have never been a lover of silence, in people or in places, and I missed the familiar all-night sounds from outside my London flat.
But then there came from below a light chink, as if something metallic had accidentally touched an edge of glass or china. From vaguely alarmed, I very swiftly became exceedingly frightened.
I have never pretended to be a man of action, though I like to think a certain sense of self-humour, an irony, makes the word bookish a little unjust.
Of the two suitcases that had accompanied me in the taxi from the station the previous day, the larger had been full of paper, notes and drafts. I was never the end of a lifetime’s ambition, a definitive biography and critical account of Thomas Love Peacock. The abominable din and dust of London made it impossible for me to complete my work there. Fortunately, or so it had seemed, I had been able to borrow a country cottage from a married couple who were close friends of mine.
In the late afternoon that preceded this rude awakening in the night, I had taken possession of my humble retreat with a very genuine sense of joy.
I was acutely aware, as I sat bolt upright in my bed, that the sound I was now listening for was in the living-room below. It was not simply that I was alone. The cottage was alone, and the telephone was in the living-room. I had to face reality: Holly Cottage was being “done” – burgled.
I did at last take some positive action. I got my legs from under the bedclothes and sat on the edge of the bed. No doubt it was symptomatic that I did all this with the greatest caution, as if I were the burglar. But I simply did not see what I could do. I was certain to come off worse if it came to a struggle.
I must confess too, in retrospect, to a purely selfish motive. It was not my property that was being were stolen. The only things of overwhelming value to me personally were the papers and the rest to do with my Thomas Peacock. I had laid them out on a table in the other downstairs room, the one furthest from me, the sitting room. They would hardly be in any danger from the semi-illiterate who was rummaging down below.
The predicament grew intolerable. Further sounds came that showed the person below was quite confident that he had the house to himself, but it was increasingly obvious that sooner or later the thief would try his luck upstairs. It was not so much fear of injury or death as the awareness of how futile any action that provoked them was certain to be.
And then I felt so eager to kill off the final draft, to have my fascinating and still grossly underrated subject alive and on the polished page. I felt a determination now to let nothing in this ridiculous present situation endanger my bringing it to its due completion.
I do not know what impulse made me stand up at this point and feel my way carefully to the bedroom window.
Events moved with a chilling rapidity. Quick footsteps mounted the stairs. I had an abrupt panic: I must do something. I must act. Yet I stood by the window quite unable to move. All was darkness. But a torch came. It discovered at once the disturbed bed I had just left; and a fraction of a second later, I was discovered myself by the window. ?? I recollect I raised an arm over my eyes to shade them from the dazzling beam, though the gesture must also have seemed one of helpless self-defense.
There was silence, in which it was evident that the person holding the torch was not going to run. I made a feeble attempt to normalize the situation.
“Who are you? You have no right to be here.”
There was another pause. Then, at last, a voice.
“Get back into bed.”
“There’s no need for violence.”
“Okay. So like I say.”
I hesitated, then went back to the bed and sat nervously on its edge.
“Cover your legs.”
Again I hesitated. But I had no alternative. At least I was being spared physical brutality. I put my legs beneath the bedclothes, and remained sitting upright. The torch left me for a moment, searching for the switch. The room was filled with light. I made out the red shape of a young man of medium height with the most bizarre yellow hands; then that he was in some kind of bluish blouse suit. I judged him to be in his early twenties. His face was covered to his eye’s with a woman’s nylon stocking. The hair was dark, beneath a red knitwear cap; the eyes brown.
“Why you so shit scared, man?”
He came to the foot of the bed.
I said nothing.
“I do not find this a relaxing situation.”
He folded his arms and contemplated me for a few second; then he gave a snuffle of amusement.
“Jesus. The number of times I’ve imagined this. Thousands of ways. But never like this.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
Again there was a pause.
“Thought you only used the place weekends.”
“I happen to be borrowing it from the owners.”
He devoted more thought to that.
“I get it. Who wants to get bashed in for just friends. Right?”
“My dear young man, I am half your size and three times your age.”
“Just what you read. How the old crumblers always have a go. Come tottering at you with their pokers and carving-knives.”
I drew a breath.
He said, “Property. What it does to people. Know what I mean? You could have been up thee loading a shortgun. Blown my guts out the moment I opened the door.”
I gathered strength.
“Isn’t it sufficient that you’ve broken into the house of two decent, law-abiding and not particularly well-off people, and intend to rob them of things which they happen to love..” I did not finish the sentence.
“Nice house in London as well, have they?”
Suddenly he picked up a wooden chair from beside the chest-of-drawers, reversed it and sat across it, his arms perched on the back.
“Way I see it, my house has had burglars in since the day I was born. You with me? The system, right? You know what Marx said? The poor can’t steal from the rich. The rich can only rob the poor. Tell you something else. I play fair. I don’t take more than I need, right? Never the big stuff. Just places like this. I’m never greedy.”
I have had a good many people try to justify bad behavior to me; but never in such ridiculous circumstances. To say that I began to enjoy myself would be very far from the truth. But I did begin to feel that I had the makings of a story to dine out on for months to come.
“I agree that wealth is unfairly distributed.”
“But not with my way of doing something about it.”
I said nothing. He contemplated me for a moment further.
“Now I load up. I’ll be back to say tara.” ??
There was silence for nearly a minute. Then he reappeared.
“Sure you don’t want a brandy?” he said.
“No, thank you.”
“I’m not cold.”
“Right. Just got to gag you then.”
I felt the plaster pressed against my grimly resentful mouth. I felt near panic again, that I should not be able to breathe. Perhaps he had something of the same fear, for he watched me closely in silence for several moments.
I had every reason to suppose that he was now going to leave me. But he bent down by the dresser and opened one of its bottom drawers. Then he stood up with an armful of the old newspapers Jane kept there for lighting the fire. I watched, still surprised by what he was doing – I had said I wasn’t cold – as he began to crumple the newspaper on the hearth. Through this, and all that followed, he did not once look at me.
When he rose and disappeared through to the sitting-room, I knew – and could not believe. But I had to believe when he returned. I recognized only too well the red covers of the large ledger in which I had my master plan and longhand drafts of various key passages; I attempted to cry out through the tape over my mouth. Some kind of noise must have emerged, but he took no notice.
Monstrously, I was obliged to watch as he crouched and set my four years of irreplaceable work on the hearth beside him, then calmly leant forward, lighter in hand, and set fire to two or three ends of the newspaper. When it began to blaze, he quietly fed batches of typescript to the flames. I closed my eyes for a few moments, then opened them again at the sound of pages being torn from the ledger. With the same insufferably methodical calmness, he fed them to the mounting holocaust, whose heat I now felt through my clothes and on my face. After a while he reached for a poker that lay beside the fire and pushed one or two merely charring sheets to where they caught flame. If only I had that poker in a free hand! I would happily have smashed his skull in with it.
At last he turned to me. His hand moved. I thought he was going to strike me. But all I was presented with was the yellow hand, clenched into a fist – and, incomprehensibly, with the thumb cocked high.
He must have left his hand in that inexplicable position for at least five seconds.
Then he turned away and went to the door.
I was left to silence, catastrophe and the dying flames.
I shall not labour the agonies of those next nine or ten hours; of watching that fire die away, of increasing discomfort, of raging anger at the atrocious blow that had fallen. The world was insane. I no longer wished to have anything to do with it. I would devote the rest of my life to revenge, to tracking that sadistic young fiend down. Once or twice I dropped off, only to awaken again a minute or two later, as though from a nightmare – only to learn that the nightmare was the reality. I knew numbness, and then great cold.
An intolerably slow dawn crept through the curtains. Soon afterwards, an early car passed down towards the village. I made a vain attempt to shout through my gagged mouth. The car swept on and out of hearing. I tried to edge the chair towards the window, but made barely a yard of distance ater a quarter of an hour of effort.
The at last, soon after midday, I heard another car approach – the seventh or eighth of the morning. But this one stopped outside the cottage. My heart leapt. Very soon afterwards, there was a concerned official face staring at me through jagged hole in the glass of the kitchen door.
And that was that.
Nearly a year has passed now since that moment of rescue, and I will be brief over the factual aftermath.
The constable who released me proved kind and efficient – indeed I had nothing but kindness and efficiency from everyone else that day. The police investigated the theft but without finding the young man. It remained no more than an unresolved minor crime. I cannot even claim that it has affected my writing-self. A carbon of the first three chapters had remained in London; and I found that my memory was a good deal better than I had previously suspected. I decided one day that the Peacock could be reconstituted; and already I am more than halfway to doing just that.
This must seem a very flat end to my adventure. But I have not quite finished what I want to say. Just as my reconstituted Peacock cannot be quite the same as the one that was torn, so to speak, from the womb. I cannot be sure that I have reproduced the events of that night with total accuracy. But I have written them down to try to come to a positive conclusion: what was it in me that drove that young demon to behave as he did? There is an enigma; the fact that his unforgivable act was preceded by an almost kind course of behavior. When he said he did not want to hurt me physically, I believed him. Yet that cannot square with the vicious cruelty of what he finally did.
I have tried to list what he might have hated in me: my age, my education, my lack of guts, my everything else. But surely I can hardly have stood for what he called “them”, the “system”: capitalism.
There is, I believe, an important clue in that curious last gesture – the aggressive cocked thumb thrust in my face. Now I am rather fond of watching football matches on television. And what caught my attention one evening was a player running out of the “tunnel” onto the arena who showed just this aggressive thumb to a band of screaming supporters. The significance was clear: we are going to beat the enemy, we shall win.
The echo was sharp. I suddenly saw my thief’s gesture as a warning: a grin match was about to start, and the opposing team he represented was determined to win. Burning my papers was simply a supporting proof of the cocked thumb: what underlay both was a fear that in this particular match, I entered the field with the odds on my side. In this view I was the over-dog.
I am convinced that the fatal clash between us was one who trusts and reveres language and one who trusts and resents it. What was really burnt was my generation’s “refusal” to hand down a kind of magic.
My fate was most probably sealed from the moment I rejected his suggestion that I write about him myself. I think what he really invited was the loan of some of this magic power, and perhaps because he could not really believe in its existence until he saw it applied to himself. He placed his own need in the scales against a long-dead novelist; and what he must have resented most was the application of this precious gift of word-magic to no more than another obscure word-magician. I presented a select club, a secret society: and that is what he had to destroy.
I was guilty of a deafness.
I have quite deliberately given this account an obscure title. Coco spelt COCO is a clown, but Koko spelt as I have spelt it, KOKO, is a Japanese word and means the proper attitude of son to father. My epigraph shall serve as judgment on both father and son. It comes from an extinct language of these islands:
Too long a tongue, too short a hand;
But tongueless man has lost his land.