The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Last of Glasseye

An extract

Gilmore is dead, then. He was killed yesterday evening on Lodbrok Street, supposedly for violating the curfew. "Supposedly" is Atherton's word. He telephoned with the news a few minutes ago: my card was in Gilmore's wallet, and somebody told Atherton, and Atherton told me and slid a reference to the Colonel's Ball into the conversation, as smooth and casual as planting evidence. I'm not even sure the poor devil realises that even if civilians could attend the Colonel’s Ball they would be unable to bring their wives. No doubt the constable who gave Atherton the news of Gilmore’s demise will expect his reward as well. I should have been more inquisitive about that: having found my name in Gilmore's possession, why did the constable go breaking the bad news to the good inspector? I am not even sure that Lodbrok Street falls within Atherton's jurisdiction, although anything is possible these days. Even if Atherton is the law in Lodbrok Street, I cannot say I care for the idea of every crimplod and orplod on the beat knowing about our arrangement. Not that there is anything illegal in it, or even anything particularly underhand; information is the life-blood of security, as the Colonel likes to say, and the antibodies that keep society healthy depend on a steady exchange of fluids in the body politic.

Speaking of spillage, Gilmore's death is a damned nuisance. A tragedy, of course; a waste of a great talent and all that, but at the moment mostly a nuisance, because he's a third of the way through decorating the nursery and there is nobody who can imitate, let alone match, his style. I shall either have to leave the room as it is – a great, unfinished monument, like half the buildings in England at this time of race-historical renewal – or else have his work painted over, or papered over, or subjected to whatever form of reconstructive vandalism can be procured. Perhaps the wallpaper can somehow be taken down without being ripped or scorched away. An album full of wallpaper is the sort of incongruity that might appeal to Gilmore; he always enjoyed things most when they were in the wrong place. No doubt this aberration explains what he was doing on Lodbrok Street after curfew.

Perhaps the most convenient way would be to have photographs taken of the walls, although that would mean losing the texture. There are many words that describe Gilmore's work, but glossy isn't one of them; nothing glazed or smooth could ever do him justice. He hated photography: chemicals and paperwork, he once observed with more than a touch of malice, can be a suffocating combination. He was smiling when he said it; he may even have winked, although of course with that face of his he seemed to be winking most of the time anyway. Some young officers from the KZ were present and there was an ugly exchange of views in which I had to intercede; nor was this Gilmore's only provocation, even at that one particular gathering. It is remarkable, in some ways, that he took this long to get himself shot.

Still, inevitability does not make a nuisance less damnable. It's too late to find out anything now: Atherton's call came well after midnight, when by rights I should have been asleep. As it happens, for the past few days the Malays has been building up again, after its damnably inevitable fashion; so Atherton's call found me wide awake, though not particularly receptive to his hint about the Colonel's Ball, nor even next year's nor yet the one after that, by which time, according to Atherton, I might well be a Colonel myself. He wasn't at all crude about it: he couched the hint about my hypothetical promotion very cosily within a hint about an equally hypothetical promotion for the old man, to Gruppenführer, no less. He actually said Gruppenführer and not General; I thought he might follow up that one with hopes for a trip to Berlin, and perhaps for a few metallic oak-leaves to bring back as a souvenir. However, Atherton does know where to stop, which many would argue makes him more of an artist than Gilmore, whose more elaborate ventures in graphite and charcoal demonstrate a maniacal refusal to be satisfied with hints. A few years ago, when the fashion was for that intolerably fussy style of realism, some of his pieces attained a certain vogue. I sold half a dozen sketches at more than reasonable rates; even Weisser bought a couple, although he said they looked like dust storms after an indoor carpet-bombing, and dismissed Gilmore as nothing more than a cartoonist. Gilmore responded by ostentatiously revelling in the label, implying that his work was meant to parody the solemn pedantry of contemporary taste, and that was the end of his profitable phase.

He could be troublesome, without a doubt. His need for my protection waxed and waned continually over the quarter-century of our friendship, though the rhythm did not always correspond to our alternating periods of crackdown and let-up in pursuing enemies of the people. For all his risky preaching in the presence of Weisser and his kind, Gilmore knew how to practise discretion. During dangerous periods he lived carefully, talked quietly and followed sensible advice about which places and which company might best be avoided for a while. The last time I visited him at home, he was completing his sketches of the Christmas truce on the Western Front: a little late for all the posters and exhibitions, but as a choice of subject politically sound to the last degree. He kept up relations with district wardens and Party officials, some of whom have told me that Gilmore was generous with his own resources as well as with mine. This of course is quite contrary to the normal pattern of such relationships, where the protégé does everything possible to ensure that the protector's resources are not frittered away upon the mere purpose for which the protector intended them. One of Captain Gambrel's girls was thrifty to such a degree that, when patience had finally been lost and she had suffered the unfortunate accident, the money they found hidden around her dank little rooms would have paid off her debts and allowed her to rent a more hospitable environment in which to conduct her business. Then again, perhaps it was Gambrel who kept her there, out of a liking for atmospherics; certainly the place reminded me of the hard times during the Occupation, which he is too young to remember in any detail but which he considers a sort of silver age of English manhood. Perhaps that girl of his had heard about the rationing, the shortages, and simply took her performance a little too far.

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