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By Tom Holt
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $5.99
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Mild-mannered accountant Jane Doland must track down Vanderdecker, a magically immortal Dutch sea captain who, along with his crew, has been circling the globe for four hundred years.
It’s always a little startling to hear your name in a public place, and Vanderdecker froze. The beer in his glass didn’t, and the froth splashed his nose. He put the glass down and listened.
‘The story of the Flying Dutchman . . .’ the man opposite had said. Slowly, so as not to be seen to be staring, Vanderdecker looked round. His profession had trained him to take in all the information he needed to enable him to form a judgement in one swift glance, and what he saw was a plump young man wearing a corduroy jacket and a pink shirt with a white collar. Trousers slightly too tight. Round, steel-rimmed spectacles. Talking at a girl at least seven years his junior. American. Vanderdecker wasn’t much taken with what he saw, but he listened anyway.
‘Most people think,’ said the plump young man, ‘that Wagner invented the story of the Flying Dutchman. Not true.’
‘Really?’ said the girl.
‘Absolutely,’ the plump young man confirmed. ‘The legend can be traced back to the early seventeenth century. My own theory is that it represents some misconstrued recollection of the Dutch fleet in the Medway.’
‘Where is the Medway, exactly?’ asked the girl, but the plump young man hadn’t heard her. He was looking through her, as if she were a ghost, to the distant but irresistible vision of his own cleverness.
Vanderdecker knew exactly where the Medway was, and frowned. He disliked being referred to as a legend, even in his own lifetime. But the plump young man hadn’t finished yet.
‘The version used by Wagner - I say used, but of course the Master tailored it to his own uses - tells of a Dutch captain who once tried to double the Cape of Good Hope in the teeth of a furious gale, and swore he would accomplish the feat even if it took him all eternity.’
‘You don’t say,’ said the girl.
‘No sooner had the fateful oath left his lips,’ he continued, ‘when Satan heard the oath and condemned the wretched blasphemer to sail the seas until the Day of Judgement, without aim and without hope of release, until he could find a woman who would be faithful until death. Once every seven years the Devil allows him on shore to seek such a woman; and it is on one such occasion . . .’
‘I always thought,’ said the girl, ‘that the Flying Dutchman was a steam train.’
This had the effect on the plump young man that sugar has on a full tank of petrol. He stopped talking and made a request that Vanderdecker, for his part, would have found it difficult to grant.
‘Pardon me?’ he asked.
‘Or was that the Flying Scotsman?’ said the girl, realising that the joke needed explanation before an American could understand it. She might as well have been speaking in Latvian for all the effect she had, however, and again a moment of bewilderment the plump man started off again with the details of the Daland-Senta plot from Wagner’s opera. At this point, Vanderdecker let his attention drift back to his pint of beer, for he loathed the story. He had seriously considered taking legal action when the opera was first presented, but the problems of proving who he was would have been insurmountable.
By an odd coincidence, although not even Vanderdecker was aware of it, the plump young man was Vanderdecker’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson; the final product of an evolutionary process which had started with a fleeting encounter with a barmaid in New England in 1674. And there was proof, if proof were needed, that the version of the story that Junior had just gone through was nothing but a pack of lies, for Vanderdecker had been off and away without waiting to see if the barmaid in question would be faithful until a mild cold, let alone death. He was younger then, of course - a stripling of one hundred and sixteen - and still obsessed with wild notions of having a good time every once in a while. Nowadays, on the rare occasions when he met them, he looked upon barmaids simply as people who were paid to sell him alcoholic beverages.
The girl looked at her watch for the third time in four minutes and said that they had better be getting along or they would be late for the curtain. Her companion said there was no hurry, he hadn’t finished telling her the plot. She replied that she would just have to muddle through, somehow or other. Vanderdecker got the impression that she wasn’t enjoying herself very much.
They got up and left, leaving the Flying Dutchman staring at his glass and wondering why, when so many things had remained basically the same through the centuries, the human race had chosen to muck about with beer quite so much. In his young days they slung some malt in a bucket, added boiling water, and then went away and forgot about it for a week or so. The result of this laissez-faire attitude was incomparably preferable to the modern version, he seemed to remember - or was that just another aspect of getting old? Not that he was getting old, of course; no such luck. He looked and felt exactly the way he did in 1585 - which was more, he reflected, than you could say for Dover Castle.
Melancholy reflections on the subject of beer led him to even more melancholy reflections concerning the great web of being, and in particular his part in it, which had been so much more protracted than anybody else’s. Not more significant, to the best of his knowledge. His role in history was rather like that of lettuce in the average salad; it achieves no useful purpose, but there’s always a lot of it. But this was by no means a new train of thought, and he knew how to cope with it by now. He finished his drink and went to the bar for another.
As he stood at the bar and fumbled in his pocket for money, he tried playing the old ‘I-remember-when’ game which had entertained him briefly about a century ago and which now only irritated him. I remember when money was real money, he said to himself, when it was made of solid silver and had lots of Latin on it. I remember when you could have bought all the beer in Bavaria, plus sale tax and carriage, for the price of half a pint of this. I even remember flared trousers. That dates me.
As he sat down to his drink, he tried to think of something that wouldn’t set him thinking about how incredibly long he had lived, just for a change. He tired to think of what he was going to do next. But that, of course, wouldn’t take him very long, because he knew exactly what he was going to do next. He was going to get pathetically drunk, crawl back to his hotel, and wake up with a splitting head next morning which would leave him in no fit state to go flogging round Hatton Garden selling gold bars. After he had sold the gold bars, he would traipse through the bookshops and buy up enough reading matter to keep him from going stark raving mad for the next seven years. Then he would do the rest of his shopping, which would only leave him just enough time to get pathetically drunk again before slouching back to Bridport and his bloody ship and his bloody, bloody shipmates. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to find a woman who would be true until death; he simply didn’t have the time.
He was following the first part of this programme with almost religious diligence when, several hours later, the plump man and the girl came back for a last drink. Vanderdecker hoped that they would enjoy it, since it might make up for an otherwise completely wasted evening witnessing that puerile burlesque of his life story. For his part, as usual, Vanderdecker had come to terms with modern beer, and was rather better adjusted to the world in general. He no longer cared if he appeared to be staring. Staring was fun - at any rate, it was considerably more entertaining than what he had been doing for the last seven years - and a good long stare might help clear his head.
‘The costumes,’ said the girl after a long silence, ‘were quite pretty.’
Her companion gave her the sort of look that should have been reserved for a tourist who goes to Rome just to look at the gas works. ‘What did you think,’ he asked - with obvious restraint - ‘of the music?’
‘I got used to it,’ she replied, ‘after a bit. Like a dripping tap,’ she added.
That seemed to wrap it up, so far as the plump young man was concerned.
‘Is that the time?’ he said without looking at his watch. ‘I must go or I’ll miss the last train.’
‘Must you?’ said the girl. ‘Oh well, never mind. I think I’ll just finish my drink.’
‘See you tomorrow, then,’ said the plump man. ‘Perhaps we can make a start on the July figures.’
Shortly afterwards, he wasn’t there any more.Vanderdecker, however, continued to stare. If the girl was aware of this, she gave no sign of it. She was reading her programme. Presumably, Vanderdecker imagined, the summary of the plot. The injustice of it made him suddenly angry, although he recognised in his soul that it was too late to do anything about it now. He finished his drink and stood up to go. His route to the door and the street led him past the girl’s table and as he passed over the top of her bowed head he heard himself speak.
‘All that stuff,’ he said, ‘about angels and faithful until death is rubbish. It was the smell.’
The girl looked up sharply, and just as Vanderdecker was going through the door she caught a glimpse of his face. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had a vague, indefinable, inchoate feeling that she had seen him somewhere before.
‘I remember,’ said the stranger, ‘when money was real money.’
‘That’s right, mate,’ said his new friend. ‘Pounds, shillings and pence.’
‘And testoons,’ said the stranger, ‘and groats and placks and angels and ryals and ducats and louis d’or and louis d’argent . . .’
‘And nobles of course,’ continued the stranger. ‘I remember when you could get pissed as a rat, have a really good blow-out in a bakehouse, see the bear-baiting, and still have change out of a noble.’
The landlord turned his head very slightly. Drunks were no problem, but loonies he could do without.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked the stranger’s new friend, in a tone of voice that suggested that their friendship might soon end as rapidly as it had begun.
‘Before your time,’ explained the stranger, twirling his beer round in its glass to revive the flagging head. ‘Can’t expect you to remember nobles.’
‘Are you taking the . . .’
‘No,’ said the stranger. ‘Are you?’
Twenty years of keeping a pub in this particular district of Southampton had given the landlord a virtually supernatural instinct for the outbreak of a fight. Unfortunately he was at the other end of the bar, and before he could intervene the stranger’s new friend had hit the stranger in the face, very hard.
‘Christ almighty,’ said the stranger’s new friend. There was blood streaming from his lacerated knuckles, and the stranger was grinning.
‘Go on,’ he said, ‘hit me again.’
Before this invitation could be accepted, strong and practiced hands had taken up both parties and put them out in the street. For his part the stranger landed awkwardly, staggered, lost his footing and fell extremely heavily against a parking meter. The parking meter broke, but not so the stranger. He simply gathered himself carefully to his feet, looked around, and set off in search of another pub he remembered in this part of town. When he got there, however, it was boarded up. It had been closed for the last seven years, ever since a party of Royal Marines had started a fight with a man they thought was trying to be funny, and which had ended with five very confused Marines receiving treatment for fractured hands and feet.
At this stage, of course, the Dow Jones was still buoyant, the Hang Tseng had never had it so good, the FT was climbing like a deranged convolvulus, futures were trading as if there was no tomorrow, and the only currency that wasn’t performing too well was the Confederate dollar.
In an alleyway in the centre of Cadiz, a rather disreputable-looking cat was stalking an empty crisp packet.
Just as the cat had resolved to pounce, a puff of wind caught the crisp packet and blew it into the middle of the highway, along which an articulated lorry full of cans of tomatoes was travelling. The cat saw this, but decided to pursue its quarry nevertheless. He had been stalking it for over half an hour and he was damned if he was going to let it slip through his paws now.
The lorry driver, to his credit, did his best to brake, but the momentum of a heavily laden Mercedes lorry is not an easy thing to dissipate quickly. There was a thud, and the cat was sent flying across the road. The lorry-driver continued on his way, and soon put the incident out of his mind.
The cat wearily got to its feet and looked around for the crisp packet, but it was nowhere to be seen. At that moment an English tourist came running across to inspect the damage. The tourist was female and fond of cats.
When she saw the cat get up, she couldn’t believe her eyes. She had seen the poor animal being run over by the lorry - it must have been killed. But it hadn’t been. She came closer, and it was then that the smell hit her. She reeled back, with both hands over her face, and groped her way out of the alley.
The cat was used to such reactions, but that didn’t make them any more pleasant. He sulked for at least ten minutes, until a discarded fruit juice carton caught his eye and he settled his mind to the serious business of hunting. In a very, very long life he had learned how to get his priorities right.
On her way back home to Maida Vale on the tube, the girl who had seen the Flying Dutchman was bored, for she had forgotten to bring a book with her to read on the journey. Not that she had ever doubted for one split second that she was coming home tonight - perish the thought! It had been simple forgetfulness, and the tedium of having nothing to entertain herself with but the posters and her opera programme was a fitting punishment.
After a random sample, she decided that the opera programme was marginally less dire than the posters, and she read the synopsis of the plot again. A modern version of the story, she decided, with the Dutchman doomed to spend the rest of time going round and round the Circle Line with nothing to read but vilely-phrased propaganda from the employment agencies, might have some possibilities, but by and large the whole idea was not so much tragic but silly. The daftest part, she reckoned, was the idea that Satan could get you just for expressing a determination to get round a traffic hazard - if that rule still applied, she said to herself, then you wouldn’t be able to set tyre to pavement on the Chiswick Roundabout for souls in torment. Or perhaps the rule did still apply. It would explain the way some people drove.
The train stopped at Paddington, opened its doors, and sat very still. In the corner of the carriage there was a tramp with wild white hair and very distressing shoes, fast asleep with his head almost between his knees, but otherwise she was alone. The girl abandoned the legend of the Flying Dutchman and turned her thoughts toward the great web of being, with particular reference to her own part in it. I am an accountant, she said to herself, working mainly in banking. Why is it that, whenever I remember this fact, I want to scream?
Perhaps, she considered, the Dutchman story wasn’t so silly after all. Perhaps Satan did hover unseen in the ether waiting to pounce on ill-considered sayings. She had only said one very stupid thing in her life - ‘I want to be an accountant’ - but of the various explanations for her present condition to which she had given consideration before, the Satan theory was as good as any. Was there such a person as Satan, by the way? Why not? Satan was no more incredible a concept than Mr Peters, the senior partner, and he undoubtedly existed. All one would have to do to make the gentleman in horns conceivable would be to get him out of those stuffy medieval clothes into a nice three-piece suit, and convert the Fires of Hell into a microwave. You could possibly get a Government grant for that.
The girl recognised that her train of thought was becoming alarmingly metaphysical, but when you are stuck in Paddington station at a quarter to midnight with nothing to read, you can afford to indulge flights of fancy. Plato would have loved the Bakerloo Line.
I may not be Dutch, she said to herself, but I’m positive I would hate to live for ever. She remembered that week in the middle of the summer holidays when she was young, that one, inevitable week when the joy of not being at school had worn off and the dread of going back to school had not yet taken hold. That week when there was no longer anything to do, when everyone else had gone off with their parents to Jersey, when there was nothing on the television except Wimbledon, and cousin Marian from Swansea came to stay. That week that was free of all the pressures of doing the things you hated doing, devoid of all the pleasures of doing the things you liked doing, that week that lasted at least a month and probably longer. No crime a human being could commit, however terrible, could merit a punishment as dreadful as another of those weeks of killing time. Perhaps she should stop thinking along these lines, before she found out just exactly how shallow her mind really was.
It was then she remembered hearing a voice somewhere above her head at some stage during the evening, which had said that the angels and the love interest were all rubbish, but that the smell had been the real reason - or words to that effect. It was peculiar, to say the least, that her brain should seek to filter out this scrap of jetsam from the rubbish that her memory was sorting and discarding; her mind, she reckoned, was like the little grill thing over the plug-hole which catches fragments of cauliflower and pasta shells when the washing up bowl is emptied. She was reckoning thus when sleep finally caught her out, and she slept through Warwick Avenue and only just woke up in time to scramble out of the train at Maida Vale and walk home the long way.
There is one pub in Southampton which it is impossible to get yourself thrown out of no matter what you do or say, and there the newcomer ran into someone he knew very well.
At first they tried to avoid each other, since it was three days yet before they had to go back to the ship, and then they would be together again, inseparable, for another seven years. But this plan broke down when the newcomer realised that he had run out of money.
‘Antonius,’ said the newcomer to his friend in Dutch, ‘lend me a fiver till payday.’
Antonius felt in the pocket of his shirt and found a five pound note, which he gave to his companion. His companion’s name, for the record, was Johannes, and he and Antonius had been born in the same village south of Antwerp over four hundred and thirty years before. Barring shore leaves like this, they had been out of each other’s company for a period exceeding eight hours exactly once in four hundred and seventeen of those years, when Johannes’ mother had suspected that her son had caught the plague and locked him up in the barn for a few days.
Neither of them would have chosen to have it this way, since they didn’t get on very well and never had. Johannes was a short, noisy man with a hairy face and hairy arms, who liked drinking a lot and falling over. What Antonius liked doing best was standing quite still, unfocussing his eyes, and thinking of nothing at all. Each of them found the other remarkably uncongenial, and the only point on which they were united and could talk for more than three minutes without losing their temper with each other was their dislike of everyone else on board the ship, and in particular Captain Vanderdecker.
‘After all,’ said Johannes, a few minutes later, as they sat in a corner of the bar under the dartboard and drank their beer, ‘he was the one got us into this in the first place.’
‘That’s right,’ replied Antonius. ‘All his fault.’
A dart bounced out of treble fifteen and point first onto Antonius’ brown, bald head. He extracted it and handed it back to its owner.
‘What the hell did he want to go drinking that stuff for in the first place?’ Johannes continued, picking a grain of chalk dust out of his beer as he spoke. ‘He should have known it would end up all wrong.’
‘He just didn’t think,’ Antonius agreed. ‘No consideration for others.’
‘And then dropping it,’ said Johannes bitterly, ‘into the beer-barrel. ’
‘Typical,’ said Antonius. It was a word he was very fond of and saved for special occasions. He didn’t want to wear it out by overuse.
‘This beer,’ said Johannes, unconsciously echoing his captain, ‘grows on you after a bit. You could get used to it.’
‘It’s got a taste, though,’ Antonius asserted. ‘You want another?’
‘Might as well.’
So they had another, and another, and two or three more after that, and then they went outside to get some air. By now they were feeling quite relaxed, and Antonius remembered the girl who lived round the corner. They decided to go and visit her. They did this every time they came to England, just as, every time, they forgot that she had died in 1606 and that her house was now a car park. They always left a note though, saying that they were sorry to have missed her and would be sure to drop in next time. Since the building of the car park they had taken to sticking these notes behind the windscreen wipers of the parked cars, and once they had left one on the car of an avid and knowledgeable local historian, who had read it and was quite ill for months afterwards.
The plump man, who was also an accountant, although a vastly more important one than the girl, made himself a cup of lemon tea and tried to forget that he had wasted a performance of The Flying Dutchman at Covent Garden, with Neustadt singing Senta, on a cultural void like Jane Doland. Next to his career, he loved opera above all things and a failure to appreciate it was a crime that could not be forgiven. He opened his briefcase, switched on his calculator and put Rienzi on the CD player. Slowly, like the return of spring, the wound began to heal.
The National Lombard Bank is situated in the very heart of downtown Bridport. It is the sort of location any red-blooded bank manager would give his heart and soul for, right in the epicentre of a triangle formed by the town’s most beguiling attractions - the fish and chip shop, the Post Office and the traffic lights. In summer, whole families still make the difficult journey into Bridport from the surrounding country-side to stand and watch the traffic lights performing their dazzling son et lumiere; and although they now have a set of lights in Charmouth - a deliberate and cynical attempt to poach the holiday trade that has introduced much bitterness into the previously friendly relationship between the two communities - purists insist that the Bridport set has a purer green, a rosier red, a more scintillating amber than any others this side of Dorchester.
To a Sybaritic Londoner like Jane Doland, however, the Bridport Lights meant nothing more than another hold-up on her way to a not particularly pleasant assignment, and with the poverty of spirit that is the hallmark of the city-dweller she assumed that the small throng of children gathered round them were merely waiting to cross the road. She had no street-plan of Bridport to help her find the bank, but she located it nevertheless simply by looking straight in front of her as she drove in from the roundabout. A bank, she said to herself, what fun. This is well worth missing the London premiere of Crocodile Dundee 9 for.
The causes of momentous events are often so bewilderingly complex that even highly-trained historians are at a loss to unravel them. Men wise in their generation have gone grey, bald and ultimately senile in the great universities grappling with the origins of the English Civil War, the Peasants’ Revolt and the rise of Hitler, and it is doubtful now that the truth will ever be known. In contrast, the reason why Jane Doland was in Bridport, two years (give or take a week or so) since she had gone to see The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House, was quite remarkably simple. A decree had gone out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed, and since this particular decree had had some viciously unexpected things in it about Advance Corporation Tax, all leave was cancelled in the offices of the leading accountancy firm where Jane Doland occupied a trivial and poorly-paid position, and accountants were dispersed like dazed bacilli into the bloodstream of British commerce to sort out the affairs of the National Lombard Bank, the firm’s largest and most complicated client. Since the National Lombard has more branches than all the trees in the New Forest, and the Bridport branch occupies roughly the same place in the bank’s list of priorities as that assigned to Leatherhead Rovers in the Football League, its affairs were unhesitatingly entrusted to Jane Doland’s skill, expertise and highly-motivated commitment.
Jane was considering this when she parked her car under a lime tree in that famous Bridport thoroughfare which some unusually imaginative soul had christened South Street. In fact the term ‘nonentity’ had been rattling about in her brain like a small, loose bearing all the way down the A303, and by the time she reached her destination she was in no mood to be pleasant to anybody or to appreciate anything. This would go some way towards explaining her lack of enthusiasm for the traffic lights, which happened to be at their luminescent best this not particularly fine morning.
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 350 pages