Authors: Malcolm Pryce
‘It may be that I make an error in bringing my story to you. It may be that the vessel of your heart is not sturdy enough to accept the dark wine of my woe. The Russian heart is vast and contains multitudes. Is it really possible to pour out its contents into the puny vessel of your Welsh heart? I see you people selling your toffee apples and renting out deckchairs and I ask myself: where are their parricides, their swindlers, their crazed monks and dark malfeasant convicts? Where is the mother whose love is so great that she strangles her own babe in the crib to save it from the cruel death of hunger?’
‘Tell us about the sock,’ I said.
‘I was just about to.’
‘I’ll make a cup of tea,’ said Calamity.
‘The sock is from the Hughesovka Museum Of Our Forefathers’ Suffering. I used to be the principal curator. As you know, this museum charts the centuries of tyranny and oppression that caused that great Welsh Moses, John Hughes, to throw off the imperialist yoke and lead his people out of servitude to the promised land.’
‘Is there really such a place as Hughesovka?’
‘You ask such a thing of me?’
‘We learned about it in school; they told us it was the only Welsh-speaking community east of the Greenwich meridian – it always struck me as improbable.’
‘In our schools we found tales of Aberystwyth equally hard to credit. But please!’ He pointed to the sock as if to remind me of his true business here. ‘After the long arctic winter of suffering I found a short-lived but intense degree of happiness. I met Lara. I was employed for a while as an assassin for the Hughesovka criminal underworld. I first set eyes upon Lara while staring down the telescopic sniper scope of the rifle with which I was commissioned to shoot her. Ah! If I were as richly endowed in gold as I am in woe I would commission a statue to that great man, Carl Zeiss of Jena, who fashioned a lens of such perspicuity that tragedy was averted. Just as I was about to pull the trigger she turned and smiled directly into my cross hairs. A smile like the break in the clouds after forty days of rain in the time of Noah. In short, I forbore to squeeze the trigger and took instead an arrow in the heart.’
He paused and took a sip of tea.
‘Our union was blessed with a little daughter, Ninotchka, and for a time my happiness was complete. But then I was arrested and sentenced to penal servitude in the labour camps north of the Kolyma River. This was in 1950 when little Ninotchka was barely two years old. Being torn away from my family by the cruel men of the State Security Apparat caused me suffering beyond the power of words to describe. But also it gave me strength: every day in exile I thought of my little daughter and the day when I would see her again. And then in 1955 I received a strange letter from my wife. There had been an outbreak of diphtheria in Hughesovka and in order to protect our daughter she had kept her at home and prevented her from playing with the other children. Naturally little Ninotchka was cast down and in order to lift her spirits my wife bought her a little Welsh doll from the Museum Of Our Forefathers’ Suffering. Whereupon a very strange thing happened. Ninotchka acquired an imaginary friend: a little Welsh girl. This is of course a familiar and often charming aspect of many childhoods, but Ninotchka’s friend was no happy playmate with a funny name and odd ways for whom we were required to lay an extra setting at supper. She was a fiend. Her name was Gethsemane Walters and she claimed to be the spirit of a dead girl who had been murdered in Wales, in a town called Abercuawg. She tormented our poor daughter with shocking and grisly tales of death in a small town in Wales far away. How could she know of such things? My wife pretended for a while it was just a figment of her imagination. Gethsemane is a Biblical name which she could have overheard somewhere, and Walters is a common surname in Hughesovka. This is how she consoled herself. But to tell the truth she didn’t really believe it. Imaginary friends are usually called Mr Bumpy or something, not Gethsemane. She called a doctor, she called in priests who baptised and blessed and tried to drive out the evil spirit. She took Ninotchka to a special school for psychic investigation.’
He paused and removed a white handkerchief from inside his tunic and unfolded it with the meticulousness of one who intends refolding it exactly as it was. He dabbed the sweat from his forehead.
‘I did not expect Aberystwyth to be quite so warm,’ he said.
‘It’s not normally sunny in August,’ said Calamity. She stood up and walked over to the window to open it further. It was already as wide as it could go. Vanya continued with his story.
‘Not long after receiving this terrible news, I undertook a daring escape and after many adventures I arrived back in Hughesovka and into the bosom of my family. Ninotchka’s first words when we met were to tell me I was not her daddy. And then something happened that caused the imaginary friend to disappear for a while. It was 1957 and a little dog became famous around the world. It was Laika the first dog in space, a supreme achievement for Mother Russia. For a time Ninotchka became entranced with the fate of this little dog and forgot all about her fiendish playmate. And we rejoiced.’ He stopped and looked at me wistfully. ‘But, as you know, those clever scientists who sent the dog aloft had made no provision for her safe return. She died after a few hours, from heat exhaustion. Her death fell like a thunderbolt upon the roof of our house and destroyed the happiness that we had built. Even now, more than thirty years later, it is too painful for me to recall in detail what took place. The death of Laika affected Ninotchka terribly. The imaginary friend returned and took over completely. She refused to answer to the name of Ninotchka and insisted she was Gethsemane, and she denounced both her parents as impostors. There was a scene. A terrible scene involving vodka and violence during which, I regret to say, I raised a hand of violence to my wife. I was thrown into prison for murder. And I never saw my daughter again. This was all many years ago. I will not waste your time with the details of where I went or who I saw during those years. It is enough that you understand that there was never a day when I did not think of this terrible story.’ He stopped and looked at me, eyes full of agonised appeal, as if my task was clear.
‘This is a very strange and tragic story,’ I said, not sure of an appropriate response. ‘And we are deeply touched by your suffering. But what is it you want us to do?’
He took out a copy of
and opened it to a marked page. It was a picture of a lake in Wales. The spire of a sunken church protruded from the water like a witch’s hat floating on the surface. The same picture had been on the front of the
the week before. It was Abercuawg, a town drowned when they built the new reservoir in 1955 and whose ghost had made a reappearance during the recent heatwave.
Out of respect for Vanya I feigned interest in the article, even though like everyone in town I knew all about Abercuawg. Nine hundred people had been evicted and forced to watch their homes demolished. Everything was razed except the church because none of the wreckers’ men would raise a sledgehammer against the House of God. They called it the reservoir filled with human tears; some even said the water in Birmingham had tasted salty. Of all the myriad spectacles life has devised to break a heart, that one belongs in the top five. You don’t have to die to lose your life, the folks said. The magazine article recounted the various ways the lost town had made its presence known over the years. Old ha’pennies washed up or fragments of Coronation mugs; tins of boot polish with unfamiliar markings on the lid; and once a slick of eye ointment that made the water shimmer with amber translucence. At times, too, winter storms had churned the water and brought forth the scent of mothballs and corset soap; or left gossamer rags coating the shoreline that the superstitious said were the exfoliations of fairies but which were really integuments of Anaglypta shed by dead living rooms. This year the corpse of the town itself had been washed ashore.
‘You see? Abercuawg! This is the very name my daughter’s imaginary friend mentioned. Gethsemane claimed to come from this place.’ He paused and gave a beseeching look. ‘And this is your task. You must find Gethsemane. You must find out what happened to her. You must find her bones so that she may be given a Christian burial. It is my belief that only then will my daughter be released from the thrall of this terrible wandering spirit, and perhaps my beautiful Ninotchka will come back to me and my lost happiness will be restored.’
‘What’s the sock for?’ asked Calamity as she poured out more tea.
‘That is your fee.’
There was a slight heightening of tension in the room. As a private detective in Aberystwyth one has to negotiate many formidable hazards but few greater than the question of the fee.
‘Is it a valuable sock?’ asked Calamity.
Uncle Vanya nodded. ‘No sock in the history of the world has been further, gone faster or seen more. Or indeed been engaged on a more noble enterprise. It was worn by Yuri Gagarin during his first space flight, the first man to leave our earth’s atmosphere and orbit the earth.’
‘Where did you get it?’ asked Calamity.
‘For many years it was in the collection of the Museum Of Our Forefathers’ Suffering and was presented to me as a gift in recognition of my long years’ service on my retirement.’
‘Normally, we charge fifty pounds a day plus expenses,’ I said.
‘Then you must be delighted to receive a payment so much over the odds. This is a very valuable collector’s item. People would pay very handsomely for such a garment.’
‘Not round here they wouldn’t.’
‘On the contrary, according to my research, there is a firm in this town called Mooncalf & Sons that handles this sort of merchandise.’
‘They handle stolen goods.’
Uncle Vanya gave a wan smile. I picked up the sock. It was made of something like asbestos and there were two initials, YG, embroidered inside the hem. In all other respects it didn’t seem to differ greatly from an oven-glove with toes.
‘Technically, this counts as a missing person job. Despite what they say in the books, private operatives are not the best way to deal with this sort of thing. You really need the help of the police, it takes time and resources—’
‘You think if I went to the police they would help me? I know exactly why I am coming to you.’
I made a conciliatory gesture with my hands. I always gave the same spiel; they never listened but I told them anyway. ‘I just wanted to let you know. It would be wrong to take the sock without letting you know, that’s all.’
‘We’ll need a description of the imaginary friend,’ added Calamity, anxiously trying to skirt over the awkwardness that arises from such disagreements. I was about to laugh when Uncle Vanya took out a photo and laid it down on the desk.
It was a black-and-white shot showing a group of children and adults in what appeared to be the room of a hospital. There was a gap in the row of children and, surprisingly, in the gap there was a dog in mid-air. Uncle Vanya pointed to the empty space and said, ‘This is the imaginary friend holding the dog. It was taken at the school for remote viewing and paranormal research. As you may know, such schools were operated by the military who made a systematic study of various psychic phenomena during the fifties. Unfortunately, the photographer was inept, the shot is badly composed. You can’t see Gethsemane – she is standing behind the principal, here. This might be her foot. See? And this man is Premier Nikita Khrushchev who was gracious enough to honour our town with a visit.’
I gave Uncle Vanya a receipt for the sock.
The sky was as blue as a cockatoo’s eye. If they have blue eyes, I wasn’t sure. The sickly pallor of dawn had evaporated. The sand was still damp from the receding tide, still reeking of brine. Individual crystals of mica glittered and sparkled with pink flashes, and every little stone and pebble cast a shadow, like the rocks on the surface of the moon. The larger stones sunk into the sand were a yellow bone colour, worn smooth with indentations that collected clear water, like molars in the gum of the shore.
Fencing the sock was the second priority of the day. First was a visit to Sospan’s ice-cream kiosk. We went there at the start of each new case. Just as ships are baptised with champagne, so each case is launched with vanilla, and occasionally a Flake, although my instinct warned that the value of the sock would not run to such luxuries on this occasion. Sospan was the secular confessor of the town who absolved freely from his blue-and-white wooden box situated on the Prom midway between the bandstand and Constitution Hill. On the roof stood a fibreglass cone adorned with the motto
Et in Arcadia ego
, ‘I too am in Arcady.’ The exact meaning of the phrase was the source of dispute among scholars and also among the townsfolk of Aberystwyth. Some claimed it referred to classical Arcadia, the idyllic pastoral homeland of nymphs and swains, and birthplace of Zeus. According to this interpretation the words were spoken by Death and served as a bitter-sweet counterpoint to our heedless revels. Others insisted it was an oblique reference to a long-lost period in Sospan’s life when he worked on a cruise liner called the