For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, a secret that tore them apart.
Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism—a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms, of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields—to answer one last, impossible question: What makes a hero?
Lavie Tidhar weaves an alternate history in The Violent Century, available February 24th from St. Martin’s Press.
DR VOMACHT’S FARMHOUSE
The farmhouse stands on its own in a sea of green grass, white weathered stones like an ancient fort. Electricity had been installed some time back. Plumbing. A radio antenna on the roof. It is a shining bright day, the sunlight is blinding, a pure, yellow radiance emanating from deep blue skies.
Somewhere inside the farmhouse music plays, softly. A scratchy quality. A gramophone. A French chanson, each note hovering, for just a moment, in the air, before being replaced by the next.
Beyond the farmhouse lie mountains, outlined in chalky-blue in the distance. Insects hum in the grass. Summer. The smell of freshly harvested wheat from somewhere else, perhaps a nearby village, though we never see it. Smoke rises out of the farmhouse’s chimney, white smoke against blue skies.
Idyllic. The word we look for, each time.
A girl stands in the field of grass, between the farmhouse and the skies. Her long hair is blonde. Her skin is white like clouds, her eyes are blue like sky. She wears a thin white shift, almost translucent in the sunlight. She is in motion, hands at her sides, trailing luminescent lines as she turns.
Are you watching?
A butterfly hovers in mid-air, between the girl and the farmhouse. A Clouded Yellow. It hovers almost motionless, it seems. Compound eyes look over the meadow. Antennas flutter. The Clouded Yellow has a distinctive mark on its wings, a white eye and a scythe-like scattering of black dots on the wing edges.
Are you watching?
Inside the farmhouse the music comes to a halt. The gramophone spins silently. The air…
The girl seems frozen in motion, her hands rise, as though to ward off something invisible. The farmhouse seems to shimmer, inexplicably, as though the level of agitation in its component molecules has been increased, all at once. A distortion emanates from the farmhouse. Silent, swift, it travels from the source and spreads in an outwardly expanding circle. The butterfly hovers, somehow changed. Were we to look closely we would see that its distinctive eye had turned from white to azure, the colour of a summer’s skies. Time seems to slow, to freeze, then speed up again all at once. The girl completes her spin. Stops. Lowers her hands. The butterfly flies away. The girl looks at the farmhouse.
Beyond, the distortion spreads and disappears. The girl stares down at her bare feet.
Green grass. Yellow sun. Blue skies. White clouds.
A perfect summer’s day.
THE SOUTH BANK
Night-time. A cold wind blows from the Thames. London, the giant Ferris wheel spinning slowly, wreathed in lights. The South Bank: couples walking hand in hand, a man by the entrance to Waterloo Station hands out free copies of the Evening Standard. A homeless man under the arches sells copies of the Big Issue – stares at the tall fellow walking past him.
Unhurried. Tall, thin. Pronounced cheekbones. Handsome. Black hair, done expensively at some Kensington place. The man is in formal evening wear: black trousers, black jacket, a crisp white shirt, a top hat. He wears white gloves over long, thin fingers. In his left hand he holds a cane, ebony topped with an ivory handle. He doesn’t whistle, but he seems to be enjoying the walk. Not too many people out. It’s a cold night. Smokers huddle outside the Italian restaurant under the arch. The man crosses the road. Waterloo Station rises before him. In the distance, Big Ben chimes an indeterminate number of times.
Fog. It makes the man smile, as at a private joke. The man doesn’t continue straight, to Waterloo. He turns left, onto Mepham Street, which opens on the backs of restaurants, on rubbish bins and delivery vans. A double-decker bus is parked kerbside, driver and inspector sharing a smoke by the open doors.
The fog intensifies. The man reaches out, as if stroking the fog. As though the fog were a cat, and the cat were an old friend. He smiles again, then lets it drop.
Looks up at the sign.
The Hole in theWall.
You could walk past it a hundred times and miss it. A London pub, hidden under the railway arches.
Grimy windows hide what’s inside. If anything. The door is closed. Dim light seems to glow inside, however, indicating that the place might not be as deserted as it appears. Not welcoming, either, though.
Should the man be smiling again, right now? A look in his eyes, but whether it is anticipation or concern, maybe even apprehension, we can’t tell. It is gone swiftly. The man climbs the three short steps and pushes the door open and goes in.
THE HOLE IN THE WALL
Entering the pub is like travelling back in time to the nineteen fifties. Post-war decor. Peeling wallpaper. Hardwood floor scarred by hard heels and cigarettes.
A long, dirty-brown leather seat runs the length of the right wall, stuffing poking out from open cigarette burns. It is facing a row of low tables on which thick candles, veined with molten wax, flicker with smoke. At each table sits a man. The men are as hard as the floor, as spent as a burnt cigarette. They are a mixed bunch, white and black and brown, like a Gothic painter’s palette. Thinning hair. Bad skin. The eyes are uniformly vacant. They stare into space without seeing anything.
Beside each man, on the table, is a pint glass and an ashtray. The ashtrays are large and saucer-like, of a uniform industrial make, made of some cheap metal. In each ashtray burns a cigarette. The cigarettes vary only in their remaining lengths. The smoke rises into the air, collectively, a blue note in a grey postwar world. The smoke is like fog. It serves to obscure.
On the left of the room is a bar counter and behind the counter is a barman. He is a man in his fifties or thereabouts. Balding, with muscled arms, a broken nose mended awkwardly. We never learn his name. We never find out his story. What brought him here, to this place, this twilight. He is wiping a pint glass with a rag. There are rows of bottles behind him. There are draught beer taps on the counter. Facing the bar counter are a row of barstools, empty but for one. A solitary patron sitting there.
The tall man in the evening dress surveys the room. We get the strange impression he had not always dressed like this, that underneath the polish there is something rough, and hard. He doesn’t say a word. Nods to himself, as though confirming something. Some suspicion, some expectation now fulfilled. Doesn’t seem to mind the smoke. Walks to the bar. Leans his cane against the counter. Removes his gloves revealing long, slender fingers.
Sits down, two stools along from the single patron. Glances at him. The man sits hunched on his stool. Stares at an empty shot glass. Doesn’t look back.
The tall man shifts his gaze to the barman.
– Bring me a brandy, please, barkeep, he says. Smiles, almost wistfully. Something old, and foreign, he says.
The solitary patron glances at him then. Face without expression. Picks up the shot glass in front of him and examines it. Definitely empty. Puts it down again. The mute barman looks at him, questioning with his eyes, and the man nods. The barman brings out a green bottle with no label. Pours the solitary patron a shot.The solitary patron gestures at the tall man in the evening dress. The barman’s face reveals nothing, but he gets another glass and pours another drink and places it before the tall man. Then he picks up his rag and a pint glass and continues polishing.
The tall man in the evening dress smiles. Picks up the glass. Half turns it, watching the liquid in the dim light of the pub. Puts the glass to his lips and downs the drink and smiles again. We get the sense he does not smile often, or easily.
He turns in his seat, to face the solitary patron.
– So how have you been, Fogg? he says.
The solitary patron seems to start at the name. As though it had belonged to an old friend, presumed dead, or missing, or one you had simply lost contact with, had stopped exchanging even Christmas cards with this past decade or more.The expression looks odd, old on his youthful face.
– Oblivion, he says.
The name seems to fit the tall man in the evening dress. Fits him like the white gloves fit his slender fingers, fit like his Savile Row suit. Tailor-made, that name.
He gives a half-shrug, a sort of That’s me gesture.
The other man, we know, is Fogg.
– How long has it been, Oblivion? he says. Forty? Fifty years?
– Try seventy, Oblivion says.
– As long as that.
– Not since after the war, Oblivion says, helpfully.
– The war, Fogg says. He has a youthful, pale face. Black, unruly hair. Does anyone still remember the war? he says. Is there anyone still alive?
– A few, he says. Then: There have been other wars.
Adding, a little reluctantly it seems:There are always other wars.
A silence falls between them. Behind their backs the solitary men with their solitary pints sit motionless, staring into space with vacant, milky eyes. The barman polishes the pint glass, over and over. Fogg grimaces, picks up his shot, downs it, motions to the barman. The barman fills it up again then, unbidden, also fills Oblivion’s.
– You haven’t changed at all, you know, Fogg says. You don’t look a day older than you did.
– You haven’t changed either, Oblivion says. Contemplates him with that hint of a smile. Something in his eyes, something affectionate or proprietorial. Or something less well defined, some nebulous connection. Warmth, a love. But what is love. Fogg looks uncomfortable under the other man’s gaze. Shrugs. Yes, well, we don’t, do we, he says.
– No, Oblivion says. We don’t.
– Not on the outside, at any rate, Fogg says. Not quickly.
Oblivion shrugs. As if this is too metaphysical for him. Too… abstract, perhaps. He half turns again in his seat. Looks over at the silent men. Says, What’s with them?
Fogg moves his hand and the smoke, from candles and cigarettes both, seems to rise, thicken, cling to his fingers. Looks at the men. Distracted. The men stare back. Vacant, like empty lots. Like buildings with tear-down notices posted on their doors. Fogg shrugs.
– Them? he says. They’ve been dead for a long time. They just don’t know it yet.
Oblivion nods. As though he understood more than the words. Your smokescreen? he says, softly.
– It’s just habit, Fogg says.
Oblivion nods. I remember.
– Old tradecraft, Fogg says. Sounds sheepish.
Oblivion grins. Suddenly, like a grenade. Must be harder, now, he says. With all the No Smoking laws everywhere.
Fogg shrugs. Looks like he’s about to smile. Doesn’t, in the end. Says, I’m retired – as though that encapsulates everything.
Which perhaps it does. Oblivion says, Yes, well. Raises his glass. Salut, Fogg, he says. They touch glasses, body to body with a sound both soft and hard. Drink, in unison. Bang their glasses on the countertop. Practised. Used to each other. Used to each other’s habits.
– What are you doing here, Oblivion? Fogg says. Stares at him. Fog gathering between them like a mesh of cobwebs. What do you want?
Oblivion waits. Fogg, with a hint of anger: I told you, I’m retired. I left a long time ago.
A train goes overhead. Over the arches. It shakes the glass bottles lining the wall, and the heavy old tables. It runs and runs and runs. And disappears. The Hole in the Wall is awash in something like an expectant silence. Oblivion says, It’s not as simple as all that, though, is it, Fogg?
Fogg waits him out. One of the drinkers coughs, the sound unexpected, loud in the silence of the pub. We don’t retire, Oblivion says. Not really we don’t. We don’t have the luxury of it.
– For Queen and Country? Fogg says. It used to be for King and Country, in the old days. Stares at his empty glass. I don’t serve any more, he says, quietly.
Oblivion, a moue of distaste flickering over his face, gone quickly. As though the task is unpleasant. What he came for. What he has to do. Says, gently, The Old Man wants to have a word with you. That’s all.
Fogg says: He’s still alive?
– And still old.
– And you’re still his lapdog, Fogg says. Oblivion shakes his head, a tired gesture, not one of denial. He just wants a word, Fogg, he says. Gently, but with finality. Fogg says, No.
– No, Fogg says. I’m not interested. I’m out.
– He said you’d say that, Oblivion says. Fogg just shrugs. The same finality.
Oblivion doesn’t seem to mind. Looks at Fogg. Looks like he’s picking his words carefully. Says, He just wants to go over some details with you, that’s all. An old file.
On his barstool, Fogg becomes still.The smoke thickens around him, beside him. Becomes, almost, a physical form. A grey shape, a shadow.
– What old file, he says.
Oblivion hesitates. A fisherman, moments before hooking the fish. Aware of what he is doing. Perhaps even having second thoughts. Fogg had to gut fish before. He knows. A slimy experience. Cold intestines sliding against human fingers. Scales digging into your skin as you grip the fish. Drawing blood. The knife sliding into soft belly. And that look in the fish’s eyes. The look in Fogg’s eyes.
– Well? Fogg demands.
Oblivion says a single word.
The fug of smoke crescendoes around Fogg, a beekeeper’s protective mask. That single word, like a bullet with a name engraved on its side. Ricocheting from the walls. Another train rumbles overhead, its wheels chugging, multiplying that word, that name. Sommertag. Sommertag. Sommerta—
– Why? Fogg says. Why bring up the past?
– It’s just routine, Oblivion says. Convincingly or not, we can’t tell. Something’s come up.
Doesn’t say what sort of something. Fogg doesn’t ask. Oblivion says, apologetically, The Old Man just wants to confirm some details with you.
Fogg stares at his empty shot glass. Better than a reply. Intensely fascinating, the glass. Its purity. Its imperfections. The way light travels through it.
Snatches it up. Whips around. Hurls it at Oblivion—
Who raises his hand. Calmly. We watch in slow motion – the glass airborne, travelling through space, through time, speeding up, like a bullet. Oblivion spreads his fingers, like so—
Something agitates the molecules of air and glass. Silica breaking into its atomic components, air separating into nitrogen and hydrogen. A strange smell, for just a moment, a hint of ozone, perhaps. We watch the glass. Avidly. With a certain fascination, if truth be told. Though we have seen this before, have studied—
It seems to melt. The glass. To separate into liquid strands, an object becoming a non-object, torn apart by an invisible force. The strands of milky liquid glass pass through Oblivion’s fingers. Disperse further. Blink out. Just like that. Oblivion rubs the tips of his fingers together. Like a magician making a coin disappear. Scattering magic dust. The glass is gone. Vanished. The blankeyed men at the back of the pub oblivious.
– Come on, Fogg.
– Damn it, Oblivion!
Oblivion doesn’t reply. Stands up. He’s tall, he almost has to stoop under the ceiling. But not quite. Pulls on his gloves. Says, Come on, Fogg. It’s just routine.
Fogg says, Sommertag.
The name, if that’s what it is, lights up the room. Fogg says, She was beautiful, wasn’t she, Oblivion?
Oblivion says, Yes. She was.
As though something has been decided. As though there never was a question about it.
Fogg stands up. The silent men move their heads as one, watching him with their blank milky eyes. Oblivion picks up his cane. Twirls it, distracted.
– Let’s go, Fogg says.
Oblivion nods. Is Fogg resigned? Defeated? We don’t know. Something in his eyes. A light that shouldn’t be there. The Hole in the Wall is grey, smoke stands motionless in the air. The barman still cleans the same pint glass with the same dirty rag. An automaton, like the smoking men. Fogg and Oblivion, Oblivion and Fogg. They walk to the door together. Their feet make no sound on the hardwood floor.
PALL MALL, LONDON
Night. It seems to Fogg it is always night, these days. London is his city, a city of fog. Sunlight hidden behind clouds even at midday. They cross the bridge, the Thames down below, the water eddies cold, treacherous. A Rolls-Royce Phantom II. Remembers this car, from long ago. Oblivion driving. That, in itself, is inconceivable. Remembers the car’s driver. Samuel. Memory like a chalkboard, but you can never quite remove the images there, only smudge them. Sometimes beyond recognition.
– Did you steal it? he says.
Oblivion laughs. Not much humour. Inside the smell of old cigars and old polished leather. Fogg winds down the window. Looks down at the water. The Thames, brown murky water, fog gathering in clumps over the surface, as if the river is haunted by ghosts.
Quiet. A plane overhead, coming low, following the contours of the river. Heading to Heathrow. Passengers aboard, like so many sardines in a rations tin. Packed tight. Peering out of lit windows on a city burning with lights.
It’s a short drive to Pall Mall.The tall buildings are dark.They have wide stone façades. Gentlemen’s clubs. The Athenaeum. The Travellers. The Army and Navy Club.
St James’s Palace. Fogg had met the King there, once, and the Simpson woman. Before the war. The Old Man had taken him to the palace. Secret meetings in secret rooms.
There is a shadow on the roof opposite the Bureau. Or does he just imagine it? The car comes to a stop. Oblivion stills the engine. They just sit there, the two of them. Like old times. Old men no less old for looking young.
– Have there been any new ones, Oblivion?
– You know the answer to that.
– Then no, Fogg says.
Just sitting there. Reluctant to get out. An old bond holding them together close as lovers.
Fogg hadn’t imagined the shadow, though. It’s there, perched on the rooftop. Watching.
A young woman with old eyes. Dark hair. Dark clothes. Watching the car. Watching the two men. Angry, now. Hawks up phlegm and spits.
Not quite in the way we would.
Normally a water-based gel. But this one’s tougher. Her body’s composition demands to be studied. Has been studied. Glycoproteins and water undergoing metamorphosis, becoming something hard and strong, like iron or lead. The globule of spit flies through the air, the shape elongating, hardening. Its speed reaches terminal velocity. It is aimed at the car. Like a bullet. Sometimes, everything is like a bullet.
It hits the back window of the Rolls-Royce.
An explosion of glass and spit.
Excerpted from The Violent Century © Lavie Tidhar, 2015