Authors: Michael Dobbs
To the Memory of my Father.
And all those who came before
It was a filthy way to die, he told himself.
He had imagined death would be something rather grand. A few immortal last words that friends would discuss and applaud as they chewed over his life and his incalculable contributions to the public weal. A dignified passing wrapped in the warm blanket of public approbation before he slipped off to an altogether more elevated plane. He had imagined it as some sort of classic English triumph, all stiff upper lip and tear-stained lace; not like this.
When the doctors told him that, at his age, there was little more they could do, he had thanked them, smiling to show that it was just another challenge. After all, it was going to be their loss rather than his. ‘Can’t complain. Had a good innings,’ he reassured them, comforting himself with the image of a final walk back to the pavilion accompanied by the applause of the crowd and congratulatory obituaries in
. There would even be a thanksgiving service at St Martin-in-the-Fields, he hoped. Not that either of his two former wives would attend; they preferred to forget rather than forgive. And there were no children. Pity, really.
Only now had he begun to have twinges of regret, to feel the need for support as disease gnawed at his bones and his self-esteem. He had returned to his old haunts, the scenes of previous battles and many
victories, wanting to touch them one more time. The first stop had been at his ancient public school perched on the Sussex Downs where his intellectual agility had begun to develop a true cutting edge and his singular competitiveness had marked him out as a boy who would go far. But he recognized no one; only the young headmaster had shown any interest and that had faded with the realization that there was to be no endowment cheque in exchange for the tea and wholemeal biscuits. He hadn’t bothered going back to his Oxford college; nowadays the old university sanctuaries all seemed to be given over to women and he hated that. Women had never been more than a distraction for him, rarely pleasurable, inevitably expensive and, ultimately, always irritating.
So he had come to London, an uncommon event since his retirement some years before. Even that had changed. The noise and crush disorientated him, the traffic ground impatiently to a halt while the people, more impatient still, hurried past, unaware and unconcerned. Whitehall, which had been the playing field for much of his career, hid distant and austere behind the new security and surveillance systems. Downing Street was where during the war he had lived, slept, loved and, in the days of defeat and despair, had even thought he might die. Now he couldn’t even get close. He had stood wedged behind the barriers, staring forlornly through the wrought-iron railings. No more crisp salutes from the duty policeman, no more satchels full of papers marked ‘Top Secret’ and smeared with the dust from Churchill’s cigars, only barriers with hidden cameras and windows covered by heavy bomb-resistant curtains to catch the shards of glass, just in case.
It was another world, a world rushing by, a world of which he was no longer part. On those streets he used to know so well he had become mesmerised and confused by the bustle while in every shady corner where he sought refuge he felt as if he were standing on the doorstep of a still darker world. He had discovered he was shaking.
He had sought refuge in the all-male preserve of his club. Here at least all was familiar order, nothing appeared to have changed. He had sat in his favourite armchair at the Athenaeum for the entire afternoon before realizing that his friends were no longer there and the few acquaintances who recognized him had no time for a decomposing old man with no future. Someone he thought he knew had approached purposefully from the other side of the room, but solely to ask whether he had finished with the newspaper. Only the steward in the coffee room seemed happy to speak with him, and he didn’t have English as a first or even third language.
He had sat, a frail figure dwarfed in an armchair of ancient, cracked leather, knowing this world had already passed him by, and whether he was yet willing to let go or not was of little consequence. He no longer belonged. He was an anachronism, of less importance to his fellow man than the battered armchair he occupied or the newspaper he was reading. He was an old man watching his body slowly being eaten away, feeling the strength drain from him a little every day and discovering that dying was a lonely and humiliating business. Suddenly he didn’t feel brave any more.
So he had come to Berlin. He had never before been to the German capital yet, as he began to suspect that the mincing clerics he had so long despised
might after all be right, that he should prepare to account for those things he had done, so a sense of guilt had risen inside him. Guilt was a new feeling; he didn’t know how to handle it. It implied fallibility and a concern for the judgement of others, characteristics for which he was not noted. He had always worked behind the scenes, wielding his influence away from the public eye and never having to answer to any other than a handful of the good and great, and the justification of acting in the national interest had served to excuse a multitude of sins. Yet as death loomed, the excuse seemed no longer enough, not for what had been planned for Berlin. He had always avoided the place, not wishing to allow any measure of doubt to enter the comforting certainties of his life, but those certainties were being corrupted along with his flesh and it had become all but inevitable that he should fly here, a last attempt to atone on earth for the things he had no desire to answer for in another place.
Sir William Cazolet Bart., KCMG, CB, CVO etc., former adviser to Prime Ministers and
of the British Establishment, whose informed if unattributable counsel had frequently been sought by monarchs, judges and editors, sat on the upper deck of a bright green tour bus as it barged its way around the sights of Berlin. Most of the other passengers were still in shirtsleeves, enjoying the last of the September warmth, but Cazolet was wrapped up tight in hat and scarf. His circulation had gone and his long, thin fingers showed like white bird’s claws as they gripped the seat in front for support against the swaying of the bus. He shouldn’t travel until next spring, one doctor had advised. There’s no point
in waiting, another had countered looking deep into his glassy eyes, you won’t be here by then.
Berlin was not as he had imagined. Somehow his mind’s eye had always seen the city in black and white, slightly flickering, like an old British Pathé newsreel, but the western half was tinselly, garish and loud, while the east still bore the scars of the attempt to build nirvana out of concrete. ‘Directly ahead you shall see the Brandenburg Gate,’ intoned the courier, ‘built in 1791 to act as a toll gate at the western end of Unter den Linden. It was here on 13 August 1961 that the first stones of the Berlin Wall are being laid. The statue of the goddess of Victory on top was firstly naked, but was quickly covered up, and then taken for a few years to Paris by Napoleon …’
The bus lurched to the right and the Gate was no longer in sight. An overweight American in the next seat who had been sleeping off lunch gave a belch as he came to life and muttered something in the ear of his equally substantial wife. She ignored him, burrowing into her guide book, double checking everything they were told by the courier with an air of unremitting scepticism as if anxious to ensure they were getting their money’s worth. She saw Cazolet staring. ‘Yeah?’ she said aggressively as if welcoming the opportunity to engage in combat with someone new, before being distracted once again by the voice over the loudspeaker.
‘The low grassy mound you are seeing in front of you is all that is left of Hitler’s infamous Bunker, which was blown up by the Russians after the war. It was from this point that Hitler and his generals directed the campaign in its last few months, and it was here that he and his mistress Eva Braun
committed suicide in the closing days of the war, she by poison, he by shooting himself …’
Up to this point the fat American had been far more engrossed in her guide book than the real-life sights of Berlin, but now she stared out of the window, leaning across the girth of her husband to get as close as possible. ‘’S no bigger than a Little League pitcher’s mound, Leo,’ she snorted in contempt, digging her husband in the ribs before snapping her guide book shut and burying her nose in a slimming magazine. Leo, grateful for the respite, went back to sleep.
Neither of them noticed Cazolet’s reaction. He was sitting to attention in his seat as though reprimanded, his head swivelling on its scrawny neck to ensure that his eyes stayed fixed upon the grassy knoll for as long as possible. When at last it vanished from sight the old man slumped back in his seat, a puppet with all its wires cut. His face, already pale, had become chalky white beneath the parchment skin, the only sign of colour being the blue veins throbbing at the temples. His breathing was anguished, the air forced through thin, downcast lips. There was sweat on his brow and the dim eyes stared straight ahead, taking in nothing, lost in a distant world of their own. He took no further interest in the tour and showed no sign of leaving the bus when it reached its final stop. The courier had to shake him by the shoulder to rouse him. ‘Must have had a turn,’ the courier muttered to the driver, relieved that the old man was able, albeit with difficulty, to disembark and so release him and the tour company from any further responsibility.
It was not until the following day that Cazolet seemed to have recovered the grim determination
which had brought him to the city. There was more to be seen, but he forsook the formal guided tours and instead commandeered a taxi. ‘Take me to old Berlin,’ he instructed. ‘I want to see the city as it was, before the war.’
‘What’s left to see? Try a picture library,’ the driver muttered.
But Cazolet had insisted, so the driver, encouraged by a substantial tip paid up front, had driven east and north, across the line where the old Wall had only recently divided the city before being chipped to fragments by a thousand hammers, into the working-class district of Niederschoenhausen. As the sights of the tourist brochures slipped away behind them the shrunken figure in the back seat seemed gradually to come to life. This was more as he had imagined it, sad, grey, like British Pathé. ‘Slow down,’ he ordered, peering intently out of the window as they came off the highway and began to bounce along streets of bare cobblestone.
For some while they crawled between the rows of austere, gloomy tenements that huddled along either side of the road. There was little life to be seen. The only greenery grew out of the cracks in the cornicing that hung, often precariously, along the frontages, and the few people he saw on the streets had expressions which perfectly matched their dismal surroundings. Many of the buildings were in need of substantial repair, with dripping algae-covered water outlets and cracked window panes, or bits of board and cellophane where windows ought to have been. The ancient ravages of war could still be seen in the pockmarks which were spattered across the façades. There were gaps between houses where buildings had once stood but
where now there was nothing but a wilderness of weeds doubling as a burial ground for old cars. Everything seemed worn out, of a past age, just waiting to die. At last, Cazolet told himself grimly, he had found a place where he belonged.