Inquest - Index   |  chapter 1   |  chapter 3

Chapter 2

The Sinclairs mull over what it all might mean.
Eventually, they're off to bed: first Annabelle, - then Tancred, -
and finally Soraya and Balfour too.


       The offer Professor Morgenstern presented us with was literally overwhelming: we did not know what to make of it. The few papers, the little information: there was too much here -- and far too little -- to make almost any sense of it. A distant European estate, considerable funds, Morgenstern looking to be ... what ? reinvented ? History -- or at least his story -- to be captured ? documented ? rewritten ? Or was he asking for something entirely more ?
       Soraya immediately tried to phone him, but the number had been disconnected. We couldn't recall when we had last spoken to him; he never liked using the telephone, especially in recent years, as his hearing progressively deteriorated. He preferred to rely on written communication -- but these pages we had received were unlike his usual letters, the void of his absence behind the words obscuring its content. We had some sense of the import of this whole mess of paper --solicitor's notes and all -- but couldn't yet grasp it.
       It was far too late to contact the solicitors in England, so for the moment there was no one we could turn to for answers. Leaving us only to spin out questions.
       But there was little to go on. Even the children, usually relentlessly inquisitive, were subdued, seeing that Soraya and I hardly had any answers to offer them yet. Having looked all the pages over I folded them again and put them back in the envelope. Soraya took it and said she would make the necessary inquiries the next day. And we left it at that.
       Silently, almost dazed, we each wandered off to complete our usual weekday evening routines, clearing the last dishes from the table, then taking book or manuscript or work in hand. I returned to the manuscript I had been going over, but even as my eyes scanned the lines my mind was elsewhere.
       Soraya eventually came in and sank wearily in the soft armchair in my study. I thought no more than a quarter of an hour had passed, but it was already past nine (my temporal instincts proving even poorer lately than usual).
       "So do you think he is dead ?" Soraya asked. I understood that that would weigh on her mind more than anything Morgenstern had written in the pages we had received.
       "I think he's right," I said. "We would have heard."
       "But do you think he's dead ?" Soraya asked. She was never one for false or gentle reassurances.
       "I think he is," I admitted. "He was old. Very old."
       "I'd hate for him to have died alone."
       "I don't think he would have minded."
       "No," Soraya agreed after a moment's thought. "He probably wouldn't have. But I would mind. I guess I'd be jealous of not having him to the last, of not hearing the last words, the final wise last breath,"
       "So perhaps this is the opportunity to see him off in grand style. To slowly allow him passage to the other world."
       Soraya looked at me, wanting to believe in some such explanation. But of course there was no other world for Morgenstern, no need for gentle transitions. 'Dead is dead,' he believed, and he never had much problem with that abrupt finality.
       "Or to slowly allow us to let go," Soraya said.
       A more reasonable explanation, that it was for our benefit, to allow us to deal with his passing. But we both knew that Morgenstern had little patience for such sentimental posturing. He wasn't entirely a cold rationalist, but he saw little value in the "mentality of sentiment", as he chose to circumscribe it.
       "So what do you think we should do about his ... proposal ?" I finally ventured to ask.
       "I'll talk to the lawyers tomorrow. We'll see what they have to say, whether there really is a place to go to, funds at our disposal. And then we'll decide what to do."
       Annabelle came to the door, already ready for bed, standing there a moment to see whether she was interrupting us. Seeing that she wasn't she came in. "Any decisions ?" she asked, taking her mother's hand in both of hers, lightly swinging her arm.
       "Nothing to decide yet, dear," Soraya said. "If -- when -- then we'll all decide. But first we have to see what it's all about."
       "Story ?" Annabelle then asked, in a more childish tone, looking back and forth to Soraya and me.
       "I think your father is in a more telling mood today," Soraya said. It was usually me that was in a more telling mood. Annabelle didn't seem to mind, either way.
       "Now ?" I asked, already reaching to turn off my desktop lamp.
       Of course now. Annabelle held out one hand, only letting go of her mother's with the other once I had a firm grip on it. She lolled and pulled as we went to her room, her smile broadening as I lifted her up and swung her onto my hip. She buried her head in my chest, her wannabe adult façade falling away in the span of these few minutes, regressing past her actual years, de-aging well into youngest girlhood, happily dependent and protected.
       I knocked on Tancred's door and went in. He was at his desk, a hefty encyclopaedia volume open in front of him, while he was leafing through a more compact but equally fat book on his lap. "There's not much on Wristwhich ...," he told us. "Rystwycz," he corrected himself. "Not in what we have here. I'll have to check at the library. We really need better history books, Dad. You don't have nearly what we need. For situations like this. For practically any historical situation. Really -- much too little. But I'll have a report ready in a few days."
       "Excellent," I said.
       "Excellent," Annabelle echoed, half-mocking, half agreeing.
       "Though we don't really know what we're in for ..." I reminded Tancred.
       "Or up against," Annabelle added. "But we'll see. Tomorrow. Today, it's bedtime. You want to read with us, bedtime tales ?" she asked.
       "No, I want to finish this," Tancred said. "Not much longer," he promised me, already turning back to his book.
       "All right," I said.
       "Good night," Annabelle wished him. "Good luck."
       "G'night," Tancred mumbled.

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       "I didn't know what I could do to help," Annabelle said, almost apologetically. "I should have thought of Rystwycz. History."
       "Fortunately Tancred had that covered," I reassured her. "And I didn't think of it either. Or anything else. Truth be told, Annabelle, I wouldn't know where to start. Not today. Efficient Mum will look into it tomorrow, and we'll formulate a plan then. I'm sure there will be enough for all of us to do."
       I sat down on her bed. She still clung to me, not quite ready to let go.
       "So what do we have on the night table ?" I asked, reaching out for the half dozen books piled on it. "Or are you demanding invention ?"
       "No," she said sleepily, resting her head on my shoulder.
       Annabelle's reading matter -- the current load on her night table, at least -- focussed entirely on one of her recent preoccupations: Central Africa, and the Congo, formerly Zaïre, in particular. There were a few novels, including Joseph Conrad's obligatory Heart of Darkness, Ronan Bennett's The Catastrophist and something by some Barbra Kingsliver or someone. (Yes, yes, I know exactly who and what it is, but Soraya underbid on the manuscript when it was up for grabs and she doesn't like any reminders of that having slipped through her hands. She believed it had a good chance of becoming a success, but never imagined it might become such a success, and so -- since it has that other publisher's imprint -- it's not a book we parade around the house, or even mention, if we can avoid it.) There was some non-fiction too, tougher stuff. Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost. Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Ludo De Witte's messy account of The Assassination of Lumumba (though I had told Annabelle to hold off on that one until we got one of the European editions, the Dutch or the French one). And recently I had found a collection of Simon Gray's plays that included The Rear Column, which I recalled had some Congolese setting (Stanley and Emin Pasha or some such episode), so I had gotten that for Annabelle and it had made it into this Central African stock-pile.
       I wasn't entirely pleased by this selection, as some of the material was a bit much for even an adult to take. Between the indignant outrage, leaving her literally shaking in anger when she repeated some of what she had read to us, and the sheer obscenity of some of the horrors perpetrated and described in these books this was surely entirely inappropriate bedtime reading for our twelve year-old. But Annabelle seemed to be able to lose herself in conflicting, charged emotions until she fell into a sleep of complete exhaustion, usually still clutching whichever of the books it was she had been reading. There had been at least one very tearful nightmare episode a few nights earlier, but we trusted her to know best and didn't want to inhibit her curiosity. (Soraya more than I, perhaps: Soraya dismissed my concerns by calmly describing her own tear-wracked nights reading romances at that same age and arguing that such -- indeed: any -- literature could be far more damaging. (More ? I wondered, though I didn't say anything.) But since the nightmare-night I had made sure to at least monitor what it was Annabelle read before turning the lights out, gently directing her (by offering my out-loud reading services, which she always accepted) to the less gruesome material and leaving the rest for the morning and daylight hours.)
       "So where in the Congo do we stand ?" I asked her. "Or is it Zaïre already ? Or again ? Or are we too tired to venture anywhere near there ?"
       I had thought she might be near nodding off, but she immediately jerked upright at my words. "No," she said emphatically. "Though ...," she added. "Yes, maybe, a bit away. I don't want to get all that tangled with all this." She reached for the books, pulling out the Gray. "This, it has others as well. Other plays. I'd actually started in on the second one." She opened the book to a bookmark. "Molly," she said, pushing it towards me and slipping under the covers.
       I had no recollection of the play. First performed in 1977 I saw, turning back a few pages. Set in the 1930s. Based on ... the same murder trail as Terence Rattigan's Cause Célèbre. Alma Rattenbury. George Percy Stoner.
       It took me a moment to remember the details, or at least the gist of the case. Woman with a husband thirty years her senior takes much younger hired hand as her lover. Murder ensues. Followed by some sensational trial.
       Annabelle grinned sheepishly, perhaps acknowledging that this wasn't entirely appropriate reading matter -- bedtime or otherwise -- either. "I've read the first scene," she told me. "But you can start at the beginning again if you want."
       It would probably have been the wiser course (and choosing something else entirely would have been wisest), but she had already begun to recapitulate and set up the second scene, so that is where I plunged in. "A week or so later ..."
       It plays to my vanity, the reading out loud. They all know that: Soraya and Tancred and especially Annabelle. But they seem to enjoy it. Drama we sometimes like to read together, assigning the parts, but I'm just as willing to go at it on my own. And Gray is usually manageable, not crowding his scenes too. Certainly in Molly.
       It's not really a challenge to read what's unfamiliar. I feel perfectly comfortable just jumping right in, taking a stab at things. Plays are a bit riskier than fiction, what with just dialogue to base everything one, but that barely slows me down. It's my style, in any case, my standard literary approach: I read as recklessly, as (melo-)dramatically when I read to myself, not knowing -- at least the first time 'round -- what lies ahead. Of course I'm partisan, right from the get go, favouring characters and events, hoping for specific (or at least vague) outcomes, without much rhyme or reason. How can one not ? It's part of the fun -- getting it right and getting it wrong and simply getting involved with the text.
       I do get it wrong sometimes. In drama, especially: one thinks of a character one way and then s/he turns out to be quite a different sort. But that comes with the territory. People are much the same, after all. Real life situations. Can't depend on anything, or believe in anyone. Truth isn't stranger than fiction. Or vice versa. Truth ultimately is fiction, and fiction truth. Which, I think, is the way I like it. Certainly, it doesn't make much difference to me. Either way.
       Molly then. Hardly gruesome, until the end -- and I wasn't going to get that far, not in one sitting. Annabelle giggled at childish Molly, and housekeeper Eve, already won over by the couple, chasing after headstrong but also childish Teddy. But then it does get quite sordid quite fast, as the skies open and Oliver is seduced. There are only a few ravenous kisses before the lights go down, but not much left to the imagination.
       I couldn't very well leave it with the close of the first act, and so on we went into the second. Just the one scene, before it gets to murder, but it's long enough.
       The odd 1930s English world, the slightly risqué happenings, the adult dialogue, the threat of murder: her mouth just barely open in the slightest of gapes, Annabelle eagerly took it in. It was a stage play, and a bit dated or even simply too simple -- despite some sharp and well-observed bon mots -- for me, but it was just right for Annabelle under these circumstances. Apparently. A complete remove from everything: school, family, Morgenstern.
       Annabelle herself looked feverish when I closed the book, her eyes brighter when I finished than when I had started, her cheeks flushed. It hadn't put in her in a state fit for sleep (as she had been before) -- one would think. But she needed this, or preferred it: mind racing and emotions pulsing, allowing her to sink from vivid waking reverie straight into a deep dream-state. Physical exhaustion annoyed her, a bodily weakness she resented, and she would petulantly stand up to it, but this mental exhaustion she could give in to. Anguish, emotion, gnawing complexity didn't torment her and keep her tossing and turning at night; it was warm milk to her. (She'll sleep right through puberty, Soraya optimistically (but not entirely unrealistically) predicted.) It had always been that way: soothing lullabies were anything but when she was an infant, while occupying her with a task that caused her to furrow her tiny brows in thought -- from balancing building blocks atop one another to form towering towers to arduously trying to decipher the words of the books that she couldn't yet read -- left her willing to drift easily off to sleep.
       It always made me uneasy, to see Annabelle in this over-excited state. I should have been used to it, after night after night, every night, but it struck me as unnatural, as something I should do something about. Fortunately, I restrained myself, ratio subduing instinct. I knew she would be fast asleep, her breaths steady and deep, within five minutes of my turning out the light, even if all the parenting manuals (and various in-laws) insisted it wasn't -- indeed: couldn't be -- how a child was supposed to fall asleep.
       Odd, too, was another habit: she didn't insist on my finishing the play -- and I knew she wouldn't turn the lights back on and read it after I had gone. She didn't mind being kept in suspense; she even seemed to thrive on it. She said it gave her something to wonder about: what next ? And the actual what next, she said, was often a disappointment, so she didn't mind putting it off. I had no idea where she got that particular trait: Soraya often couldn't be bothered to finish, forgetting a book as soon as she put it aside, even if she was two pages from the end, while I had to finish anything even vaguely open-ended once I got started -- even if that meant losing sleep over a second-rate thriller, finishing it up at three in the morning. In fact, I was sorely tempted to take the Gray-collection and finish Molly for myself, but I knew Annabelle would want to return to it whenever it was she woke, so I left it with her.
       I kissed and hugged her good night; she clung to my neck in a tight hug for a few seconds, then let go and sank back in her bed. Her hugs --- they are always like that -- seem terribly needy, the kind one gives before what might be a very long absence. But then: what is longer than a single night in a child's life ? I'm always ready for her to break out weeping -- it's what I expect if Tancred or Soraya cling to me like that -- but she almost never does. Usually, like here, she finally just sinks back with a simple small and already sleepy smile, allowing me to pull the covers up (which she doesn't seem to even have the strength left to do) and turn the lights off, barely whispering a final "Good night", in response to mine.
       I stood by the door for a moment; she was already asleep. As always, I left the door slightly ajar, unable and unwilling to close her off entirely.

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       On to Tancred's room: I knew he would still be up, though he shouldn't have been.
       He was still at his desk. His head was drooping more, but like his sister he wouldn't give in to mere physical exhaustion. "Dad," he said unsteadily. "We really ... we do need better history books."
       "You're probably right," I admitted.
       "Really, it's intolerable what I have to work with ...," he mumbled.
       "Agreed, Tancred, agreed. But I don't think either of us is up to drawing up a list of our requirements at this time."
       "I could make one ...," he insisted.
       "But I'm entirely too tired and it is entirely too late to do almost anything about it," I told him. "And you belong in bed. We have a lot to do tomorrow. You have school, we have this Morgenstern offer to consider. And, apparently, we have to look to bolstering our history collection. So you -- and more importantly: I -- should get a good night's rest."
       "You call this a collection ?" he said -- but he was smiling, giving in.
       He stumbled off to wash and change, and I leafed through the books on the desk. He had filled half a notepad with writing, mainly half-sentences ending in arrows and question marks, hopefully pointing to where one might look to find actual information.
       "It's a pretty out-there part of the world, Dad," he said, when he returned in his pyjamas. "Nothing -- I mean nothing -- significant seems to have happened around there. No big battles or anything. As though armies always made big circles around it."
       "There might be geographic reasons," I suggested. "Or is it topographic ? You know what I mean: the area is inaccessible, not worth passing through. It did switch sides often enough though, didn't it ? From what I know that chunk of land around there was ruled by half a dozen countries over the past five hundred years."
       "I think so. It looks like the borders were drawn around it, back and forth, repeatedly. Austrian and Russian and Polish and possibly Prussian. And then Austro-Hungarian, and Hungarian and maybe Czech and Belorussian -- or is it Ukrainian there ? -- and maybe even Rumanian. But I can't figure it out from the information available to me here. It's all so unclear. I wish we had better books."
       "Well, we'll look into it. Perhaps even get a first hand look soon enough."
       "So we're going ?"
       "We'll see. But it seems worth a look, don't you think ?"
       "Yes," Tancred said after a moment's deliberation. "There should be points of interest. Things to see and learn."
       "Right. Now: off to bed."
       Tancred looked at the books and papers on his desk, wanting to get back to them (even if they offered him so little) but finally deciding that the soft bed was the wiser option at this point. He put on the night-table light, propped himself up on his pillow, and opened the book that had been lying on the bed -- some pulpish worn paperback novel. He made no effort to force the book onto me, preferring to read it himself, at his own pace, in his own mind's voices. He immersed himself in it immediately, barely registering that I was still there.
       I kissed him on the forehead and wished him good night; he barely glanced up to mumble the same. "Don't read too long," I said; he barely acknowledged my words with a nod. They didn't fall on deaf ears, but it was a pointless thing to say, accepted neither as suggestion nor as admonition. I would have to come back in half an hour and gently pry the book from his hands. It had been months since Tancred had turned out his night-table light of his own accord, and not had Soraya or me do it for him.
       Unlike Annabelle, Tancred needed to wind down before sleeping. He needed to read -- almost always only for himself -- for half an hour, at least, or an hour, some simpler, unambitious fiction, to get his mind off everything from the day. He needed to divert all the thoughts, pushing them aside until only the two-dimensional fiction dominated, and then he might be calm enough to sleep.
       When we had late nights -- visiting friends or family, an evening at the theatre or movies -- where it was impossible for him to read (because he was physically too tired, or circumstances otherwise made it impossible) he might collapse into sleep but he would then toss and turn and wake entirely unrested.
       I watched him read for a few minutes, envious of the concentration that allowed him to focus so intently simply on the pages in front of him, completely oblivious to all the world around him -- even his father, standing just a few feet away. (I'm told I read with similar single-mindedness, but I'm never aware of that state: I am only aware of the many times when it is impossible for me to concentrate at all on tasks and books at hand because of the world's distractions.)

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       Tancred was still reading when I went back to check on the kids. "Let me just finish this chapter," he said when I came in.
       I did, sitting down on the edge of the bed, watching his eyes dart to and fro as he lapped up the words. I liked these moments. My kind of family idyll. There was little connexion here: Tancred was in a world elsewhere, from which I was almost entirely excluded. But I could have sat for hours watching his eyes, and the small changes and shifts in his expression, the unconscious reactions to what he read.
       I was happy just to sit there. And almost sad when he closed the book and said: "Done."
       I looked in on Annabelle as well. In the half-dark it looked like she had not moved at all since falling asleep. I smiled, listening to her steady, easy, slight breaths, and then went off to join Soraya.
       Soraya was already in bed, going over manuscripts. "You shouldn't let Tancred stay up so long," she said, peering at me over her reading glasses.
       I thought to answer that she could just as easily have put her foot down and forced him to bed earlier, but she was just venting her unease, channeling it elsewhere. Soraya was preoccupied, which was why she hadn't seen to it herself, to at least get him ready for bed earlier.
       Perhaps she wanted a small, senseless argument to distract her. I wasn't about to start it. I made my excuses: "I got carried away, reading to Annabelle".
       "Jungle stories from the Congo ?" Soraya asked.
       "No," I chuckled. "Actually -- a Simon Gray play. And not the Congo one. Molly. Do you recall it ?"
       "Not off hand. Recent ?"
       "Mid-seventies. About some notorious murder trial. Rattenbury ...?"
       "I saw the Rattigan version."
       "Well, this is another take on it."
       "Simon Gray. Well, if it's murder ..... Still, do you think it's entirely appropriate ?"
       "Entirely inappropriate, really. But Annabelle seemed to enjoy it."
       "You know that you could read the telephone book to her and she would be quite as enraptured ?"
       "Well, it's all in the delivery. But I think she was enjoying this a mite more."
       "Simon Gray ....."
       "There's clever dialogue, you know. It is quite entertaining. Quite well done. Though what with some childish adults and yet very adult goings-on I'm not sure what Annabelle might make of it ..... But at least she didn't ask me to read Dog Days ..."
       "Good lord, you didn't let her have a copy of that, did you ?" Soraya said, smiling but a bit shocked at the thought.
       "It's in the collection I gave her," I admitted a bit sheepishly. "I meant to take it ... but I couldn't well without making her more curious. We didn't finish Molly, and The Rear Column -- the Congo play --, I don't think she's read it yet. But she probably won't look at Dog Days."
       Soraya laughed. "That play I saw. Enough to put you off marriage. Wasn't there an awful lot of talk about self-abuse in it ? All the variations"
       "It was practically a study in self-abuse and self-destruction."
       "I was shocked when I saw it. Or unsettled. So triste. And," she said, putting her face close to mine, "definitely not something for a little girl."
       "She's not that little ..."
       "In that respect she certainly is," Soraya insisted. "It is a damn clever play, though. I remember. The dialogue -- well, the English, at that time, they just did that so well. Him and Stoppard and Ayckbourn and Bennett and the rest. But it is a disturbing portrait. The brothers, more similar than they knew. And those difficulties with and about sex."
       "Sex is complicated."
       "Not in that way, surely. Not between us, surely."
       "We couldn't fit well in a Gray play ?" I teased.
       Soraya breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Never. But look, do see to it that she doesn't stumble across it. It's the type of thing that might upset impressionable young minds. Marriages troubled in such a manner, the contrast of appearances and realities. She's not that aware of deceptive appearances and veneered marriages yet, and there's no need to get such ideas in her mind. It'd just be confusing for her. God, I am still confused about some of it. Makes me squirm." She gave a little shudder to underline her words.
       "Yes, I'll try my best."
       Soraya looked at me as though the best she could expect just wasn't quite good enough. She usually has more faith in me, but the day seemed to have worn her down more than usual.
       She turned to the manuscripts for a moment, but then bunched them together and demonstratively dropped them to the floor by the bed. Putting her glasses away, turning off her light, she nestled up to me. "I admire that you're so unconcerned," she told me, her eyes closed already.
       About what ? I wondered -- and then asked her. "About Morgenstern ? Annabelle ? Tancred ? Work ? Play ?"
       She smiled, opening her eyes briefly. "You really are oblivious to it all, aren't you ?"
       I supposed so and said as much. What was there to be so concerned about ?
       "A world, Balfour," she said, squeezing my arm. "The whole goddamn world." She pulled herself up and kissed me: "But thank you for that. I don't think I'd like it if you were ... concerned, in the way the rest of us are."
       I wasn't quite sure what she meant, but I'll take her praise where I can get it, so I didn't inquire further.
       "You know what I'd like ?" she asked.
       I kissed her, my lips lingering against hers.
       She giggled. "That, too, actually," pulling me over, onto her, pulling my shirt off, my pants down. "And then," she sighed, "to have ... you lose ... yourself ... again, ... in the pages ... in the pages ... in the pages ... of some book."
       She stopped speaking, losing herself in the prolonged moment.
       "Reading your book," she rasped finally. "Because it still matters to you, still means something to you. When I can barely see the words for ..." -- she motioned at the discarded manuscripts -- "for the deals and the hype and the potential audiences and the expected sales numbers. The world's still a story for you, isn't it, Balfour ? And reality is whatever it seems on any given day, whatever your imagination molds it into." It was an observation, not an accusation. Sometimes, when she said that, in these or other words, it was an accusation, but here there was a bit of envy in her words, a bit of unhappiness.
       I kissed her again and took my book, only too happy -- as always -- to oblige her.

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