Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Great Escape

The hardest part of the operation, he told us matter-of-factly as we sat round the table on the roof like three old pals in the public bar, had been getting all of them out at the same time and without the benefit of his military experience and natural air of bullying authority the plan could never have been pulled off. He'd appreciated from the off that shepherding fifty-odd old ladies, many of whom could barely place one foot in front of the other without snapping a hip or two, up the stairs, on to the roof and through the hole in the fence to freedom was likely to be fraught with difficulty and in the end for the sake of expediency he was obliged to leave some of them behind to take their chances. You never knew, one or two might have made it, but in reality he expected most of them would have been rounded up pretty quickly. A ruddy shame, that, but it couldn't be helped. All in all, though, the smoothness of the whole shebang had exceeded his expectations and though he said it himself it had been a damned fine show. Damned fine! Poisoning the well - actually the staff teapot - had been a doddle, with hindsight a service to mankind, and though he hadn't reckoned on all the guards dying, well, that's what we call collateral damage, lads, and to hell with the lot of 'em. Serves 'em right. Bloody wogs.

John Jackson - 'Black Jack' to the cognoscenti, and not because of the colour of his hair, which in his youth, he informed us, had been quite fair, but that of his soul - wasn't one of those people whom on first acquaintance one feels an overwhelming urge to embrace intimately, buy a few drinks and take home to meet the family. His general construction was reminiscent of the proverbial outside toilet, though one fashioned not from the traditional brick but from a particularly resilient species of granite. On his gnarled features, beneath a scarred and battered bald head, he wore a bellicose expression which announced without ambiguity the ever-present threat of extreme and gratuitous physical violence and though this alarming countenance was etched with deep lines denoting much laughter having occurred thereon over the years one was left with the distinct impression that the only thing likely to amuse this man would be the terrible suffering of a fellow creature. He carried about him an aura of utterly unfeeling callousness and a truly abhorrent arrogance, the sum of which qualities was no doubt of some use to the man whom it behoves to be parachuted behind enemy lines in time of war but which seemed strangely at odds with the ethos of the pale and slender world inhabited by the staff of the modern Public Health Service. He was eighty-seven years old and a few seconds' propinquity was sufficient to induce in me a very strong desire to curl into a ball and rock gently to and fro to the accompaniment of helpless sobbing. Drawing on my last reserves of fortitude, I managed to limit this urge to shuddering at the thought of what he'd been like in his prime, and even Stan Tablets, no delicate flower himself, seemed strangely subdued in his presence. Jackson was more edifice than human being and a serious contender for the title of the Maddest Man I've Ever Met.

We'd been sent to Willow Lodge - 'Clapham's Premier Care Home' - at the behest of a vigilant neighbour who had reported sighting a large elderly gentlemen standing on the roof and 'laughing peculiarly'. Quite why this jovial old boy might require an ambulance was information too sensitive to be imparted to the mere crew, but that's about par for the course these days. Perplexity notwithstanding and nobly setting bitterness to one side, we continued on our journey to find half a dozen or so old women in slippers and nightdresses tottering along the street towards us as fast as their Zimmers would carry them. Reasoning that there was no law against it and having no desire to get involved with such people, we carried on to the address and entered through the open front door to discover that every member of staff we could find was apparently engaged in that time-honoured English pastime of taking a well-earned snooze at the taxpayers' expense. Stan went off in search of someone vaguely compos mentis, no easy task in such a place, and I continued onwards and upwards until I reached a door which gave access to a kind of rooftop garden or terrace.

Built in 1868, Willow Lodge started its life as the four-storeyed, thirty-roomed Clapham Court Hotel, catering mainly for the travelling class of businessman in the days before motor cars ruled the earth and its location, a literal stone's throw from the railway station with its fast and reliable service to the city, proved popular with those journeying up from the south and ensured that it thrived for almost a hundred years. In its heyday the Clapham Court hosted many a gay evening in its modest ballroom where the young of Clapham and its environs danced to the musical arrangements of such local luminaries as Swingin' Johnny Jarvis and his Jumpin' Jazzmen or, when the weather was clement, twirled the night away beneath the potted palms on its rooftop terrace which, before the candle factory was built, had boasted panoramic views of the river and beyond. By the nineteen sixties however, the old hotel was struggling valiantly but ultimately in vain against ever-changing market forces and it finally bid farewell to its last guests in the autumn of 1972 after which it remained empty and unused except by the local children as a sort of impromptu substance abuse club until it was purchased in 1979 by one Rajendra Patel who, with the aid of much timber, plasterboard, and a generous grant from the local authority, converted its thirty rooms into sixty and opened its doors in its present incarnation as a geriatric care home for the physically and mentally dispossessed of the surrounding area.

Mr. Raj Patel named it Willow Lodge after that tree which he felt epitomised the old-fashioned gentility and quintessential Englishness of its prospective residents and while Bonkers and Incontinent Lodge would doubtless have been more accurate Raj was first and foremost a businessman and thus concerned with attracting the cash rather than enhancing the education of the local population. From the start it proved a most profitable addition to the Patel portfolio and remained until the events of the night under scrutiny the flagship of his flourishing financial fleet.

Thoughts of youthful romancin' to the strains of jumpin' jazz men flitted through my mind as I stepped through the door to the terrace and found myself beneath an unseasonably warm and portentous night sky, across which the clouds seemed to be hurrying with an indecent and ominous haste as though in frantic search of a more convivial aspect. The roof garden itself was about fifty feet square and bordered on three sides by a waist-high fence of rails and trellis. There were tables and chairs dotted about here and there and a few desultory shrubs in concrete pots. Perhaps the old ducks were able to derive some vague approximation of pleasure from taking the air up there with a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits on a fine afternoon in July but just then I was nurturing an abiding ambition to be far, far away. Something bad was in the offing and it could have been a trick of the wind or solely my imagination but I fancied I could hear a low and mournful sound of the sort usually associated with the terrible suffering of a fellow creature. Directly opposite me there sat an uncommonly large man wearing a dark blazer and grey flannels, puffing contentedly on a pipe and chuckling softly to himself. Beside him I noticed a gap where a section of the fencing had been removed. He turned slowly and looked across at me, and as my legs began to buckle with fright I heard the door open behind me and then the familiar voice of Stan Tablets.

"They're all dead," he said.

"What?" I was only half listening, trying to regain some semblance of composure, my eyes fixed on the creature across the way.

"The staff. Six of 'em. They're all dead." As the meaning of what he was saying finally reached that small part of my brain which is concerned with rational thought, I turned towards him and his brow furrowed quite perceptibly as he caught sight of our new companion. In fact he bristled noticeably and hesitated in a most un-Stan-like fashion as if somehow unsure of how to proceed and then the man spoke in a voice which made Stan's basso profundo sound rather castrato soprano.

"Don't be frightened, lads," he said, and I swear the building trembled. "Come and sit down. I'll tell you a story." Then he turned away and addressed himself to the business of replenishing his pipe. Somehow he seemed marginally less terrifying when those pale eyes were not boring into you, so we crossed the terrace and pulled up chairs beside him. We waited while he got his tobacco burning to his satisfaction and then he began.

"I stayed here once or twice, y'know," he said, gesturing towards the former hotel. "Back in '41, it would've been. I was about twenty-two, I suppose. There was a girl . . . Maisie, her name was. We were going to be married." He closed his eyes, remembering. And then came the life story.

We learned of his itinerant childhood, the crushing poverty and deprivation between the wars, the boxing booths, the bare-knuckle bouts, fighting and thieving all his life; and then the army got its hands on him. Barely able to stick the discipline, he was selected for special operations. He told of his exploits with the Dutch Resistance, how he was engaged in the assassination of collaborators and helping prominent, vulnerable people escape from the Nazi occupation. There was torture and death, dirty tricks and treachery, stuff you wouldn't believe, boys. He couldn't remember how many people he'd killed with his bare hands alone. And when the war ended they gave him a medal and a job with the Ministry as a driver, a bodyguard, a bloody bag-carrier. He searched for Maisie and though he saw her everywhere, he never found her. Maybe she'd been killed in the bombing or given up waiting and married someone else, moved away, had a family. There was nothing to be done so he just carried on, dead inside, for sixty years. And then one day last year the council said they had to knock his house down to make way for the new one-way system and they stuck him in this fuckin' place with these old women and there . . . is it really you, Maisie? All he could think of was getting her out. To live like that! What a waste of time it had all been if that's how it ended. My Maisie rotting in a stinking old people's home, pushed around by a load of fuckin' darkies.

"I had to get her out of there, you see. Couldn't leave her living like that, not with that lot. Had to get her away to safety. But which one was Maisie, that was the question? They all looked the same to me. Couldn't take a chance, had to get them all out. Come on, girls! Quick as you like! Through here! Chop, chop! And the next one! Just like the old days." He laughed insanely and stood, towering over us like some immovable colossus. And then Stan, unable to control his primitive urges a moment longer, sprang at him. There was a brief flurry of movement and then Stan was sitting on the ground eight feet away gasping for breath and scratching his head. Jackson solemnly advised us not to grow old and we assured him that no, no, honestly, we had absolutely no intention of doing any such thing, thank you, and for a moment we thought he was going to make sure of it but he simply turned away without another word, stepped through the hole in the fence and plummeted sixty feet in the darkness. There was a flesh-and-bony, crunchy sort of noise which reminded me of nothing so much as an enormous paratrooper landing in the prescribed manner on a substantial pile of fairly fresh yet brittle corpses and then a few seconds of eerie silence, followed by a familiar wry chuckle, and the sound of size-ten footsteps padding away into the night.