A cabinet of curiosities

A cabinet of curiosities is a fine hobby for a gentleman. Shrunken heads with glossy hair, shark’s teeth and narwhal tusks. All amusing, yet they can be acquired for mere pence, at any provincial junk shop. I deal in rarer goods.

My taste is for the secret histories of men and women. I draw close, beguile the subject by that most addictive of pleasures, a sympathetic audience. Then they come, the confessions, the telling slips, the hidden shame that burns to be uncovered.

Like the collectors of fossils and postage stamps, I label my finds, recording them, in this little notebook. Moleskin, you notice – my one concession to writerly pretension. The dates, the names, the places. And the stories.

19 February, 1947. The American Bar, Savoy Hotel, London. Mrs Amanda Flanders: The Showgirl

Mrs Flanders ordered a Martini cocktail and rooted in her handbag for a cigarette. She was not alone for long.

The man leaned across with his brass Zippo lighter. He was American, one of those businessmen in boxy suits who travel from city to city, dispensing crippling handshakes and slapping undernourished Europeans on the back. Mrs Flanders hunched her bony shoulders as she drew on the flame, hoping her borrowed black dress wasn’t gaping too much at the front.

The Martini arrived. She took a sip and held her breath as the oily liquid scalded its path down her throat. ‘Lemme get you another one of those,’ he said, gesturing to the barman. ‘You stayin’ here, sweetheart?’

When she could speak again, Mrs Flanders said: ‘Yes! I’m an actress. I usually stay in digs, but the night before an opening, I insist on a proper hotel. So important to be properly rested, you know. And the Martinis here are divine.’ She flashed him her most fascinating smile.

‘An actress, huh? You don’t say. So what show are you in?’

It wasn’t difficult, she reflected. She just had to hold her nerve. Her hand, casually steadying his, as he held the Zippo for her again. The pre-war fur coat, slipping off her knees to reveal her last pair of stockings. Her high-heeled shoe swinging free from her toes, accidentally brushing against his trouser leg.

In the lift – the elevator, as he’d called it – he crushed her up against the mirrored wall, taking great hungry bites at her neck. Checking her reflection, she noticed a smear of bright red lipstick across her front tooth. She rubbed it away with her knuckle.

‘Oh – Oh my goodness!’ In his bedroom, he thrust his tongue between her modest bosoms, pushing her backwards onto the bed. Her dress was rucked around her thighs, getting crumpled. She tried to pull it out of the way, worrying about stains.

He heaved himself inside her, drawing from her a quickening of breath, an unexpected gladness. Well, it had been a while, she thought.

‘Jesus,’ he gasped. ‘Sweet Jesus.’ He rolled onto his back.

She lay still a moment, surprised at herself.

‘Well, that was fun! I’ll just pop to the lavatory.’

He grunted, eyes closed, trouser fly gaping, his detumescing member pink against his belly.

In the white space, she stared at her flushed face in the mirror. She felt thirsty, with a headache coming on. She took a towel, dipped a corner in hot water and carefully cleaned herself. She filled the tooth mug with cold water and drank.

He’d lit a cigar and was leaning out of the open window. His trousers lay crumpled on the floor.

‘I’d better get off to my room,’ she told his back. ‘Need my beauty sleep for tomorrow. Will you come to see the show?’

‘Yeah, sure will. Break a leg.’ His voice was despondent.

Mrs Flanders slipped his wallet into her handbag and snapped it shut. After a moment’s hesitation, she took the brass lighter, too. She walked smartly out of the Savoy Hotel and caught a bus home to Catford.

Mrs Flanders told me the £50 had lasted her the rest of the month, while Mr Flanders was off with his back. But she’d been feeling guilty and wondered if he’d understand. They divorced the following year.

April 26, 1961. The Balcon de Cuno, Ronda, Andalucia. Angel Garcia Gomez: The Matador

Senor Garcia Gomez sat on the wall of the Balcon de Cuno, feet dangling into the precipitous Ronda Gorge. The Balcon gained its name from the exclamation of shock that visitors invariably emit on looking over the edge for the first time. Cuno is a quaint Spanish term that should be used with caution.

The coach parties had departed for the day. Ronda was newly become an attraction, and visitors adored the romantic little bullring, the curious houses and the wild landscape. Senor Garcia Gomez was not a tourist, nor a tour guide. He was, he told me, a matador. This profession, it seemed, did not pay him well, for his rope soled sandals were frayed and his shirt patched. Nor did he have the proud stance of the kings of the ring, but the defeated look of one who has bet against himself in the unequal game of life.

However, he had that afternoon made a bold stand. His mother – and here he paused to spit venomously into the void – had sold his suit of lights, the traje des luces that was a bullfighter’s most valuable possession. She had used the money to pay off the man who owned the bar, and to buy a chicken and some carrots. And a goat, which she’d tethered outside in the street.

‘We will have milk and cheese and eggs,’ she had told him, pleased with the bargain. He had stared at her, disbelieving. He ran upstairs to his little room, checked the cupboard, looked under the bed. Only the poster pasted on the door remained, proclaiming !Seis Toros, Seis! above his name.

He came down to the kitchen. He found the chicken, which he kicked out into the yard, clucking madly. His mother, who had been chopping the carrots, followed him, also clucking.

‘It is better this way, Angel. Do you think I like to see you risking your life, for a few pesetas? We can stay here now, make money from the tour buses.’

Senor Garcia Gomez took the knife from his mother’s hand and tested the edge against his thumb.

‘Look,’ he showed me his hand. ‘Very sharp.’ The dirty skin divided either side of the deep pink cut, narrow as a hair.

He held the knife against his mother’s throat. She had screamed, begged him to remember his father, called on the Virgin and the Holy Mother of God. He found the point at the back of her neck, where he had been taught to place the sword. To kill cleanly, the matador must deliver death in one blow, severing the aorta between the shoulder blades so the bull dies in a gush of blood.

‘It was a clean kill,’ he told me, eyes shining. ‘I was awarded the ear. La oreja.’

This, you should understand, is a tradition with the bullfight. If the crowd approves of the matador’s performance, if the passes with the cape have been artistic and heroic, and the kill delivered with daring elegance, the matador may be awarded one or both ears.

Senor Garcia Gomez dug into his trouser pocket and extracted a small parcel, which proved to be a bloodstained handkerchief wrapped around – something. I did not ask him to unwrap it. He held it a moment, then stuffed it back in his pocket.

He was deciding, he explained, whether it would be more honourable to fling himself from the Balcon, or to take himself to the Oficina of the policeman in the town square. He had been to the priest, he said, and obtained absolution for his mother’s murder. But the priest had refused to grant him advance absolution for the act of suicide, which was a mortal sin. He asked if I would run to the priest, the second he jumped, so that absolution might be said immediately, before he was quite dead.

Naturally, I suggested Senor Garcia Gomez reconsider. He scrambled to his feet, perhaps intending to accompany me to the Oficina. Sadly, his action was too precipitate and he lost his footing. His scream echoed down the valley.

A moment later, the policeman arrived, led by the hurrying priest. The body was identified by Senora Garcia Gomez, the smartly-dressed proprietor of the Bar Toro. She lamented that her son had been behaving most strangely, since losing his job as a ticket-seller at the bullring.

July 30, 1957. Staten Island Ferry, New York. Master Tom Wheeler: The Boy Scout

The events that occurred on the Staten Island ferry Mary Belle that hot July afternoon are well known, especially since the release of the motion picture based on the true story. They were to follow Master Wheeler for some years, a halo that made people smile and say, ah, yes, the boy scout. Makes you proud to be American. Thank goodness you were there.

The official report found errors enough to sink a dozen ferries. The captain, a hopeless drunk. The vessel, ill-maintained, thanks to profiteering at City Hall. The lifeboats, wrongly stowed, so that it was impossible to lower them from their housings. But the report had nothing but warm words for Master Wheeler, whose ‘prompt and courageous actions’ had ‘undoubtedly reduced the death toll’ and made him ‘a shining example of the Scouting movement to which he is so proud to belong’.

There’s a photograph of him that was in all the newspapers, standing at the waterfront in Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty hazy in the distance behind him. He’s all done up in his olive-green uniform, toggle straight and cap at a jaunty angle, teeth gleaming. Like a Norman Rockwell cover for Life magazine.

He looks – not quite at the camera, slightly to one side. His smile reminded me of a chimp I once saw at the zoo, cornered in his enclosure by a gang of bigger primates, baring his teeth and defecating with fear. Of course, the poor boy was surrounded by flashbulbs and reporters shouting questions. And he’d lost his best friend, Buck Finlay, his brother scout, in the tragedy. Everyone remembers him weeping at Buck’s memorial service.

I met Master Wheeler when he was 20 years old, 8 years after the tragedy of the Mary Belle. He was drinking beer in a down-town bar on the corner of Canal Street and West Broadway. There was a baseball game on the television and the customers groaned as the New York Nicks took a pasting.

‘See, that’s the trouble with this town,’ he said, pushing floppy blonde hair out of his slightly unfocussed eyes. ‘You’re either up or you’re down. No place in between.’ He was drinking Budweiser straight from the bottle. I recognised him straight off, as I suppose did most people. He hadn’t changed much.

He’d been told to repeat a class, he said, at Cornell, his smart Ivy League university. There was some mix up, some bullshit about the numbers on his paper and that of his room-mate, a straight A student who’d unexpectedly ploughed his end of year exam.

‘And they blame me!’ he said, waving his beer bottle. ‘They think they know me. Let me tell you, nobody knows me.’

He drew the knife out of his pocket to show me. ‘You wanna see this? This is the one. This is the baby.’

I stared at the red folding pocket-knife, with the familiar white cross. So this was the knife that had sawed through the ropes, releasing the lifeboats one by one? It lay in his palm, looking small and insignificant, hardly big enough for the job.

‘May I?’ I took it, weighed it in my hand. Sliding a nail into the crease, I eased open the blade.

‘No! Nobody does that,’ he shouted, snatching it back. He caught his thumb, folding it back down. ‘Shit. Look what you made me do.’ He secreted the knife and wrapped a paper napkin round his thumb. He went back to his beer, and I, to my hotel room.

I had noticed something curious. The blade of the knife carried an inscription. What do you think it was? Some lines, perhaps, to commemorate his bravery. The boy in Scout uniform who survivors clearly remembered helping to launch the lifeboats, lifting women and children down even as the ferry began to slip beneath the waves. Who had cut the last boat free with his trusty pen-knife, then gone back in a noble yet futile attempt to find his fellow Scout. Survivors spoke in hushed voices of how he climbed down alone to take the last place on the overloaded boat, where he sat with his face in his hands.

Well, no. The inscription on the blade read: ‘Buck Finlay’.

Master Wheeler never graduated Cornell. He was asked to leave, it was reported, after irregularities with his term papers, and repeated episodes of drunkenness. It was about that time that the rumours began.

And now, I believe, there is something you would like to tell me? See, my fountain pen is loaded with good black ink, and my little Moleskin notebook is turned to a blank page. There is no hurry. We have all night.

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