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February 02 Issue







Excuse me, but aren't you Marcel D'Agneau?
Sam North
Perhaps he’d meant to throw bread to the birds and absently torn his book to shreds instead. These things happen: no one is immune to a lapse of memory.

It was a chance encounter, more curiosity on my part.
Here was a middle-aged man in a long flowing green overcoat and sporting a silver grey cloth cap, throwing page after page of a paperback book into the harbour. Gulls flocked around him, but after a cursory glance at the flood of pages floating on the water, grew disinterested, or distressed at the lack of edibility. Was the man mad? This being Cornwall, one is quickly used to eccentrics doing strange things, but the man was well dressed, wore expensive black leather boots and he neither looked crazed nor even interested in what he was doing.

Perhaps he’d meant to throw bread to the birds and absently torn his book to shreds instead. These things happen: no one is immune to a lapse of memory. It’sthe weather. Cornwall does these things to people.

He saw me approach and quickly tossed the rest of the book into the harbour before stopping to pick up a wine box lying beside his feet. "I know what you’re going to say," he muttered, not even glancing at me.
"But it’s paper, it won’t pollute, it will quickly disintegrate".
"Actually it doesn’t dissolve quickly at all and it can choke wildfowl if they mistake it for food".
"Well there are too many bloody gulls anyway," he retorted, lugging the obviously heavy winebox to his nearby car. I noted his battered old Jaguar XJ40.
"Well don’t just stand there, open the bloody door, this box is heavy."

I opened the door and he quickly plonked the box down on the back seat of the car. The interior I noted was immaculate, in contrast to the unwashed exterior. A silver topped cane lay across the red leather.
"Nice cane.""It should be. Cost Cecil Rhodes five hundred pounds when that was a fortune. Had a ten carat blue diamond set into the top. Might fetch thirty grand at auction."
Now it isn’t everyday you meet a man with Cecil Rhodes’ cane in the back of his car.

This man was altogether at odds with the town. The way he spoke revealed an accent that was unplaceable. Mid-atlantic perhaps, but with traces of Australian. He slammed the door and searched for his keys. A young woman came running towards us, her coat flapping and her blonde hair flying about her face.
She looked most apologetic and guilty. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I forgot the time Daddy. I’m sorry. Are we too late?"
"I’ll have to drive you to Truro now, the train left. Get in. Did you remember your passport?
"Yes and the Euros. Come on, let's go." She looked at me and frowned. "Who’s he?"
"Just a witness to a major crime." He smiled at me and got into his car. "Get in Maria and don’t fuss. I’ll get you there."

The man and his daughter quickly departed. I looked back into the harbour and now saw the cover of the book he had just discarded. Strangely enough I knew it, had even read it. ‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mole’ by Marcel d’Agneau.

Suddenly I got the shivers. I had just seen a ghost. It was him, d’Agneau himself. The writer who’d disappeared almost as quickly as he had appeared. Two novels, one a minor best-seller in the early 1980’s. I remembered meeting him at a book-festival, how amusing and self-effacing he’d been, how young. Then I remembered in 1984 hearing of his death, some accident at a race-course, a car crash. He’d been flung through the windscreen of his Alfa Romeo and died at the wheel. It was just after signing a huge book deal with Macmillan. Made all the headlines. Not quite as romantically important as the death of Camus, but tragic for him, it is the sort of thing your remember.

I was writing myself then and working in publishing. I worked on boring titles such as ‘Shells of Britain’ and ‘WW11 Tanks’. D’Agneau burst on the scene with a couple of novels that were all well reviewed and then he promptly died. You recall these things. D’Agneau dead. Me teaching and living in Cornwall now, waiting for the call...death, hope, redemption, who cares? No one. My dog, perhaps.
But now I had a mystery. d’Agneau was alive and he was living in Cornwall and was destroying his books? Perhaps there was a story to sell here. Few would remember him now, but perhaps someone might. If he wasn’t dead, why not? Why Cornwall?

I was sure it was him. You never forget a face, even though twenty years had aged it somewhat. He wouldn’t remember me, after all, we’d only met once at Macmillans and the book-fair and he’s been somewhat absorbed by the enthusiasm of Chrissie, the star fiction editor who thought she’d make a fortune out of him. I remember her saying he would be bigger than Le Carre, better than Deighton. Well he’d certainly been deader than either of them and everyone knows the dead don’t write. So what had he been doing for the last nineteen years and why had he faked his death? I resolved to find out.

I’d found him almost a month later. That’s the thing about Cornwall, it’s so small it is difficult to hide if someone is looking for you. It is easier to hide in London. I wasn’t sure of his name, but someone described a man just like him lived in the slopes of Penryn overlooking the harbour. Someone with an old Jag like his worked near the harbour, running a specialist antiques business. I went there to see him, not to confront him, but to try to understand. Why did he give it all up? Why antiques? And most of all, why was he tearing his book to shreds in the harbour?

‘Grinder and Pitt’ Rare Antiques was engraved into a discrete brass nameplate. The business was situated by the headwaters of Penryn harbour, alongside a restaurant I had been going to for years in the summer season. Behind it, on the slopes, lay the old sailors' graveyard with its simple white gravestones. He’d been here all this time, I told myself, and I’d never noticed.

A narrow opening choked with oak and mahogany furniture gave way to a raised platform reached by wide steel stairs. I climbed them to find a huge warehouse that seemed to go back into the belly of the hillside. Here were beautiful cabinets filled with silver and glass and many rare unusual objects, as well as paintings and carpets: a vast cornucopia of objects, and above, a reinforced glass roof covered with light-filtering calico. I could hardly believe that this was Penryn. Such a place would cause amazement in Chelsea, let alone here. In all my years in this tiny town no one had ever remarked about this place. I knew no one who ever made a purchase here here. What kind of antique business was it that was almost a secret? Or had I just been remiss and failed to notice it.

He looked up as I mounted the steps and I saw him frown. He was working on his knees, sanding a corner of an ancient rather crude pot-bellied oak corner cupboard with pretty blue and red glass inserts on the bowed cabinet door.

He must have recognised me from that day at the harbour.
I did not pretend to be a customer. He spoke first, but did not look at me.
"Congratulations, you must be quite a detective. Is this curiosity or a belated attempt at blackmail?"
"Blackmail?"
"The dead shall also rise. I assume you know who I am, or else you wouldn’t be here."
"Curiosity, actually".
"Good. You realise that I would have to kill you otherwise."

I must have reacted more strongly than I intended, for he laughed and shook his head. "I was joking. I rarely kill my customers, or the curious for that matter. Do you drink coffee?" I nodded and he indicated the kettle. "Well put the bloody kettle on then. I have to finish this. Have to treat some rot. Damp got at it when it was in Fergie’s place. Just didn’t take care of it at all. Some people don’t know what they have."
"Fergie?" I enquired. "The Fergie?"
"There is another? Job lot when she was short of cash. This little corner piece once graced King James’s palace. The glass is crude. Probably Belgian. Craftsmanship was fair, but not great. Surprised it has held together so long really. Got someone interested in it in New York."
"You sell most of your stuff to the Americans?"
"I have a little showroom in Rockport. Just for the summer. Fine place in summer. Winter’s a bit harsh. You’ll find the coffee is in a tin next to the silver polish. Two scoops in the cafetiere. You were a writer as well weren’t you? I remember something about a thriller."
"209 Thriller Road. I was over here from New York. We spoke at the same book fair. You sold hundreds, I sold about six copies."

He laughed and shook his head. "Mugs game being a writer. Any business where the other lot get ninety percent has to be a mugs game. It’s all changed. Stopped being a gentlemen’s trade. Just a business now. Pile ‘em high, disposable crap. Still, you didn’t come to talk about all that, did you?"

I made the coffee, he finished his work on the oak. I was amazed he remembered me, but then, that was why he was so special. He was the sort of man who would remember every detail. There was something I remembered about him, even now. Something about what he could get away with. His books were full of real people, living real lives in real locations. No one would get away with that now, but somehow people felt flattered that he would include them, even if they were playing the baddie. Especially if they were playing the baddie. At least that is the way I recall it.

We sat at a table and remained silent for a while as we savoured the coffee. I felt a little foolish now. Why had I come? It was obvious why he wasn’t writing. He was making a fortune out his antiques. Living in Cornwall and Rockport. He wasn’t doing so badly and he looked pretty fit for a man of fifty. His hair had mostly gone but his arms and shoulders looked strong and there was a steadiness in his gaze that revealed a man sure of himself and his place in life. I wished I could say the same, and I’m younger than him. I suppose I found myself a feeling a bit jealous.

"So, ask your questions. Only one condition. You can’t write about me and you can’t come back". He suddenly smiled. "Unless you are a customer, of course, in which case, I will have to check on your credit rating. You can’t tell anyone who I was. I do know where you live."
"That sounded like a threat."
"No. You live by the beach in a flat beside the Falmouth Hotel. You sit and write on your balcony in summer and you have a collie dog called Kandy. And before you get paranoid. I always put my guests up at the hotel and I stroll on the beach almost everyday. I could probably describe to you the lives of fifty people who live around there and their daily habits."
Of course. His gifts hadn’t deserted him. It’s the first lesson of being a writer - be observant. He may have given up writing, but he wouldn’t give up old habits.
No writer does.
"Why did you tear your book up? I have been trying to..." He interrupted me.
"I tear all my old books up. Whenever I find one in the second hand stores, I buy it and destroy it."
"But why? Are you ashamed of them? As I recall they were quite popular."
"Do you know what a Marcel d’Agneau book will sell for in London specialist book shops now? Forty-five pounds each. I see one down here for fifty pence or a pound I destroy it. I like being rare. Haven’t you noticed? I will be collectable. It’s my little joke. I must have destroyed hundreds of copies by now. My little quirk."
"It’s logical, I suppose, but I never like the idea of destroying books, no matter why. It deprives posterity of its rightful legacy."
"Or the pulp machine. Posterity isn’t so choosy as you might imagine. Besides, who wants to read about the cold war now? I just got out of the spy novel game early that’s all. No one wants to be reminded of all that. New generation, new worries."
"Yes but yours was quite cynical, quite refreshing really. I remember now. Le Carre was supposed to have been offended."
D’Agneau smiled. "I predicted the end of the Berlin Wall before anyone else. I remember my first novel, the one that was pulped before it reached the shops due to some litigation thing. God, there I was in 1972 writing about Ronald Reagan as President of the USA and everyone thought I was mad. Eight years later it comes true. That book could have been quite influential. Still," he smiled, looking up at me a moment. "That’s the breaks."
"You don’t predict anything anymore? I mean, you
don’t even think about writing?"
"I predict the 21st Century will be a constant nightmare, but would I write about it? No. Everyone knows. If they don’t, then why should we worry them?"
"Why did you fake your death? Why did you walk away from a quarter of a million pound book contract? I remember now, there was talk of a film of your Sherlock Holmes novel. What was it called....The Curse of something."
"The Curse of the Nibelung. Would have made a great film, but lawyers got involved. The contract was longer than the book. It was depressing. As for the other matter, I didn’t fake my death." He bent his head down to show me his scars.
"Thirty-six stitches, broken vertebrae, migraines for ten years, couldn’t read without throwing up. Might as well have been dead. It was a mix-up at the hospital in Bayonne. The man next to me died. I switched tags.
My wife collected the life-insurance. It was more than Macmillan were going to pay and tax free. She didn’t expect me to live anyway and left me the moment my daughter was born. Left me with Maria to raise. For that I was grateful. She took most of the money too. The sad bitch married a bloody politician.
I had to sell my furniture to live and then realised that I had a knack for it. The migraines disappeared when I fell into a lake in Finland one summer. Something clicked and I was suddenly well. Bloody cold, but well."

"You never felt like writing again?"
"Never"
"Not even about antiques?"

"Not about antiques either." He smiled. "Boring, isn’t it. Wish you’d never found me now, don’t you. No mystery. Just a man who is better off dead. I’ve been dead for years. You get used to it. Finally you get to enjoy it. Being a writer isn’t all its cracked up to be.
"Selling this stuff takes me into the finest homes in America and I meet some very interesting people who have become my friends. Writers live lonely lives, meet few people and rarely live up to their best work. I could wake up tomorrow and find I’m looking at an ornate glass spoon that fed Edward the First as a child, or a desk where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital.
"Believe me, no one will care to treasure the Formica table I wrote my novels on in a London kitchen. No one will treasure anything about Marcel d’Agneau at all. And when you have gone, no one will remember you either. The furniture and spoons will live on. Now that’s worth contemplating, isn’t it. Everything boils down to a couple of rare spoons. More coffee?"

I left an hour later. Marcel d’Agneau is alive and well and living in Penryn, but I shan’t tell a living soul. Dying seems to have agreed with him.

© SAM NORTH 2000

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