marginal gloss

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October 22, 2011 at 7:07pm


The event which prompted the excavation of Subject C was the discovery of a very long strand of wire at the Crossrail site between Tottenham Court and Charing Cross Road. The worker who was operating the mechanical digger at the time later speculated that he might not have spotted the thing had it not appeared to him as a single unbroken strand in the freshly-cut clay soil, its vulcanised coating having gently eroded over the years so that it resembled a strand of golden hair set in the blackness.

Work had to stop at once to establish that the wire was no longer live. Though it was soon found to be severed at ground level, the worker was surprised to find that the wire extended some six or eight feet further still into the ground. Attempts to pull it out were unsuccessful – clearly it was still attached to something. As it was no longer in use, the wire could be considered junk and removed from the site, but though no further investigation was necessary, the worker was compelled to dig further. 

He followed the same impulse which leads a child to pull a cat’s tail in search of a reaction. The thread is there, and it must be followed to its source. And the worker was lucky a second time, for the heavy shovel of his mechanical digger did not leave so much as a scratch on his final discovery, nor did it sever the wire from its end point. What he found caused all work to stop at the site for two days.

The wire passed through the roof of what appeared to be a tall, narrow rectangular box which had been buried upright in the ground. At first this appeared to be made of wood, but a closer examination revealed that only the frame was made from a thickly varnished mahogany: the ‘walls’, ‘ceiling’ and ‘floor’ of the box were made of books. The books had been stacked as if on a shelf two layers deep, and they were not cheap, so being packed tightly together their good leather bindings and thick paper had weathered the underground remarkably well.

The outer layer of books had been arranged as on a shelf, with their spines facing outwards, before being fixed together and driven into the wooden frame with long metal screws. The inner layer was only discovered after the box had been fully excavated and the remains of Subject C removed for further testing; the books inside had been nailed by their bindings to the inside of the outer layer, so that from within they would appear held open, with the pages free to turn. It was soon discovered that the pages of the inner layer had been much torn at from within. Partly digested remnants of paper were found within the remains of Subject C.

It was initially assumed that Subject C had been male, but this was a superficial judgement formed from the clothes in which they were found: a finely tailored black morning suit, a good white shirt, a black top hat. A black bow tie was found in the pocket of the jacket, and it was noted that the subject had not been not wearing undergarments or shoes. It was not until the clothes were separated from the corpse that the bones were identified as being those of a young woman.  

There were two other objects found in the box: the stub of an ordinary white church candle, and a small black metal cone which was connected to the telephone wire. At first it was assumed that the latter was a transmitting microphone, based on the old legend that such things had once been implemented out of a fear of premature burial, but it was later confirmed that it was in fact the receiver component of an early telephone. There was no transmitter found in the box. 

The scratch marks in the endpapers of the inner layer prompted much discussion as to the purpose of the box. Some argued it could only mean that Subject C had been encased while still alive, but since the box had no visible means of entry or exit it was not clear how they could have been placed in it in the first place. Others suggested that Subject C died in the box before being buried, as although the cause of death was never established, the forensic evidence implied that they had survived within for longer than would be expected had the box been deprived of air and warmth. 

Every component of the structure was removed and examined. Once the screws were withdrawn, a complete catalogue was made of the books. Most were dated, as expected, from the late nineteenth century. Though there was no hint of a common theme to be found in the selection of texts, a notable literary academic remarked on the curious fact that the outer layer was composed of a selection of recognised classics encased in matching bindings – there were complete sets of Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ and Plato’s dialogues, the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Dryden, Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’, the poetry of Pope and Milton, and several different editions of the King James Bible. The inner layer was more miscellaneous, consisting of an apparently more personal selection of obscure cheap novels, picture books, serials and plays. The pages of the outer layer had never been cut.

The academic who later produced these observations in a short newspaper column ultimately found himself the sole party with an interest in the accumulated books. Perhaps it was only that they were the nail which he thought best matched his own particular hammer, but everyone else involved seemed to find them irrelevant. They regarded the books as a sort of contextual wallpaper for their own specialist areas. Even the historians involved seemed more interested in the remnants of Subject C’s clothes, while the forensic scientists were puzzling over a broken tooth and several fractures in the left kneecap. And of course the police were not interested at all.

From the academic’s point of view, the most significant clue came from a small volume found in the inner layer. According to the title on the spine it had been a compact edition of the Carceri d’invenzione sketches of Piranesi, but its pages had been torn out from within so that only the marbled inner papers were left. On the corner of the endpapers was a small black stamp that indicated that in 1891, the book had been the property of the London Library. 

While the academic was of the belief that the personal lending history of a member of a library ought to remain a closely-guarded secret, in this case his curiosity would not allow him to remain idle. The clue was right there, and he had a friend who knew a friend who owed him a favour. He told himself that even if he did manage to retrieve it, this information would never be anything more than circumstantial evidence – and even then, evidence of what? He thought of himself not as a detective but as a sort of curious onlooker, an occasional beachcomber who happened to have uncovered on some lonely shore the tip of something buried. It might turn out to be a rusting fragment of nothing, but he rather hoped it would not.

Incredibly, his friend came through with the name of the last library member to have borrowed the Piranesi book. The date seemed about right, and what was stranger still, the friend added, was that a full search ran on that name came up with nothing. It was quite possible that their complete record had been lost, but it was also possible that they never once borrowed another book. 

A few seconds online were enough to call up a short biography of the borrower. His name was unknown to the academic, though the surname was one of those which had a solid ring of familiarity to it. The story gleaned was unmemorable: he had inherited a lot of money, been to Eton and Oxford, made more money from building ships, held a peerage in the House of Lords, was known in later life for certain significant acts of public philanthropy, and died in 1944. There were no photographs. 

This information was contained on the website of his family home, which remained in the private ownership of his descendants (‘Available for weddings, parties, wakes and team-building weekends!’). It was not open to the public, but he made a call and asked if he could see a little of the house and grounds. He made sure to refer to himself by his professional title, and told them he was planning to write a biography of its late resident. After some negotiation, a date was set, though it was made quite clear to him that a small ‘donation’ was required for their trouble, that not all of the original features of the house remained, and that circumstances being what they were nobody from the family would be at home to give him a tour.

Viewed from the end of its long, straight driveway, the house was a box of solid gray granite against the sky. Its tall, narrow windows gave it a expression of a hard, squinting face; perhaps resembling, he thought, some of the less admirable characters in Dickens. From a distance the shape of the building had the odd effect of making it look smaller and more modest than it really was, yet on entering, he became troubled by the impression that its stories concealed more rooms than he would ever be able to find. 

He was greeted at the door by two women. The housekeeper was a little older than he, and the nanny was a little younger. The two spoke together in what he thought was Russian until eventually the nanny addressed him in English. He asked her about the current owner and she replied that he was very rarely at home. He has many houses, she said, and he does not like it here very much, it is too old and cold, and he is always feeling heavy in the rooms. He is working in Private Equity, she said, so there is always much travel, and she made a gesture that implied that these facts were necessary and inevitable. 

Incredibly, he was permitted to wander the house alone. Perhaps they assumed that this naive and scruffy-looking man was no threat to the assets of the master, but as it turned out there was little to be worth stealing: the rooms had been made over many times and now featured modern furnishings and plain white walls, with many of them being set up to receive all those weddings, parties, wakes and team-building weekends. But he was correct in his assumption that there was one room which any owner would surely not change – the one room in which, he believed, more assumptions might be formed about a man than any other – the library. 

It was tucked away at the back of the house, at the end of a long L-shaped corridor. It was very quiet there. Two leather armchairs sat beside a cold fireplace. He traced a finger through the fragments of ash in a glass tray. There was a writing desk in the corner, folded up and locked tight upon itself. The books — all leather-bound, all quite unreadable ephemera — were wedged tight upon the shelves. He tried removing one, thinking that perhaps he might unlock some secret passageway descending into the basement of the building, but they were wedged so firmly in place that he couldn’t remove even one book. He decided not to touch anything else, so he stood and wrung his hands awhile, wondering. 

It was not until he had been there for some time that he realised that in the furthest corner of the room, a bookshelf stood empty. 

On his way out of the house he asked to be shown a photograph of the man who had borrowed the Piranesi book over a hundred years ago. The housekeeper gave him a flyer advertising the house which bore the man’s on the back. It was a good photo, taken when the subject was a young man – 1889, said the date. Under the photo, for reasons he could not establish, was printed the phrase ‘The Image of Compassionate Conservatism’. His face, unshaven but for finely-cut sideburns, was an oval which bulged a little at his cheeks, but his thin lips, lean bearing, and small, dark eyes gave him a look of detached, implacable resilience.

After he was given the flyer, he was told politely that he must leave at once. He thanked the women, and went to the door. Reaching into a pocket for the keys to his car, he stopped. A long black sedan was moving slowly up the driveway towards him. 

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