me, but aren't you Marcel D'Agneau?
hed 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
It was a chance
encounter, more curiosity on my part.
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
hed 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. Itsthe 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 crate lying beside his feet. "I know what youre
going to say," he muttered, not even glancing at me."But
its paper, it wont pollute, it will quickly disintegrate".
it doesnt dissolve quickly at all and it can choke wildfowl
if they mistake it for food".
there are too many bloody gulls anyway," he retorted, lugging
the obviously heavy wine crate to his nearby car. I noted his battered
old Jaguar X type.
dont just stand there, open the bloody door, this box is heavy."
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.
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 isnt
everyday you meet a man with Cecil Rhodes cane in the back of
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.
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. "Im sorry, Im
sorry. I forgot the time, Daddy. Im sorry. Are we too late?"
have to drive you to Truro now, the train left. Get in. Did you remember
and the Euros. Come on, let's go." She looked at me and frowned.
a witness to a major crime." He smiled at me and got into his
car. "Get in Maria and dont fuss. Ill 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
Suddenly I got
the shivers. I had just seen a ghost. It was him, dAgneau himself.
The writer whod disappeared almost as quickly as he had appeared.
Two novels, one a minor best-seller in the early 1980s. I remembered
meeting him at a book-festival, how amusing and self-effacing hed
been, how young. Then I remembered in 1984 hearing of his death, some
accident at a race-course, a car crash. Hed 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. DAgneau
burst on the scene with a couple of novels that were all well reviewed
and then he promptly died. You recall these things. DAgneau
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. dAgneau 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 wasnt dead, why not? Why Cornwall?
I was sure it
was him. You never forget a face, even though thirty years had aged
it somewhat. He wouldnt remember me, after all, wed only
met once at Macmillans and the book-fair and hes been somewhat
absorbed by the enthusiasm of Chrissie, the star fiction editor who
thought shed make a fortune out of him. I remember her saying
he would be bigger than Le Carré, better than Deighton. Well hed
certainly been deader than either of them and everyone knows the dead
dont write. So what had he been doing for the last twenty-nine
years and why had he faked his death? I resolved to find out.
him almost a month later. Thats the thing
about Cornwall, its so small it is difficult to hide if
someone is looking for you. It is easier to hide in
London. I wasnt 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?
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. Hed been here all this time, I told
myself, and Id 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
you must be quite a detective. Is this curiosity or a belated attempt
dead shall also rise. I assume you know who I am, or else you wouldnt
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 Fergies
place. Just didnt take care of it at all. Some people dont
know what they have."
I enquired. "The Fergie?"
is another? Job lot when she was short of cash. This little corner
piece once graced King Jamess 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."
sell most of your stuff to the Americans?"
have a little showroom in Rockport. Just for the summer. Fine place
in summer. Winters a bit harsh. Youll find the coffee
is in a tin next to the silver polish. Two scoops in the cafetiere.
You were a writer as well werent you? I remember something about
Thriller Road. I was over here from New York. We spoke at the same
book fair. You sold hundreds, I sold about six copies."
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. Its all changed. Stopped being a gentlemens trade.
Just a business now. Pile em high, disposable crap. Still,
you didnt 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 wasnt writing. He
was making a fortune out his antiques. Living in
Cornwall and Rockport. He wasnt doing so badly and
he looked pretty fit for a man of sixty. 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 Im younger than
him. I suppose I found myself a feeling a bit jealous.
your questions. Only one condition. You cant write about me
and you cant 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 cant tell anyone who I was. I do
know where you live."
sounded like a threat."
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."
His gifts hadnt deserted him. Its the first lesson of
being a writer - be observant. He may have given up writing, but he
wouldnt give up old habits. No writer does.
did you tear your book up? I have been trying to..." He interrupted
tear all my old books up. Whenever I find one in the second hand stores,
I buy it and destroy it."
why? Are you ashamed of them? As I recall they were quite popular."
you know what a Marcel dAgneau 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. Havent
you noticed? I will be collectable. Its my little joke. I must
have destroyed hundreds of copies by now. My little quirk."
logical, I suppose, but I never like the idea of destroying books,
no matter why. It deprives posterity of its rightful legacy."
the pulp machine. Posterity isnt 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 thats all. No one wants to be reminded
of all that. New generations, new worries."
but your's was quite cynical, quite refreshing really. I remember now.
Le Carré was supposed to have been offended."
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. "Thats the breaks."
dont predict anything anymore? I mean, you dont even think about writing?"
predicted the 21st Century will be a constant nightmare, but would I
write about it? No. Everyone knows. If they dont, then why should
we worry them?"
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
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 didnt fake my death." He bent
his head down to show me his scars.
"Thirty-six stitches, broken vertebrae, migraines for ten years,
couldnt 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 didnt 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."
felt like writing again?"
even about antiques?"
antiques either." He smiled. "Boring, isnt it. Wish
youd never found me now, dont you. No mystery. Just a
man who is better off dead. Ive been dead for years. You get
used to it. Finally you get to enjoy it. Being a writer isnt
all its cracked up to be.
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 Im looking at an ornate glass spoon
that fed Edward the First as a child, or a desk where Karl Marx wrote
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
dAgneau at all. And when you have gone, no one will remember
you either. The furniture and spoons will live on. Now thats
worth contemplating, isnt it. Everything boils down to a couple
of rare spoons. More coffee?"
I left an hour
later. Marcel dAgneau is alive and well and living in Penryn,
but I shant tell a living soul. Dying
seems to have agreed with him.
© SAM NORTH 2002
Author of Magenta
More Fiction in Dreamscapes
Hackwriters 1999-2020 - all rights reserved