Looking for Robert
I was in Thailand; it was the first week in February about six weeks after the tsunami. It was hot and humid. The heat exhausted me. There was debris everywhere, collapsed buildings, uprooted palm trees, and a rancid, earthy, wet smell. Temporary mortuaries were full of bodies piled on makeshift metal shelving. There were noticeboards where photographs and sad appeals hung damply and people wandered listlessly between them; I was one of them. I met some forensic teams who were trying to match evidence to human remains. The ones I saw laid out were purple, swollen, torn and twisted.
Looking at the corpses and the crowds relentlessly searching I understood that a body could not be laid to rest until it was matched to a name. Otherwise there were names and no bodies, names which might end up like those on the war memorials in Flanders, list upon list carefully engraved, the sole relics of lives lost.
A French doctor whom I met said that the whole place seemed to him like purgatory.
“What do you mean?”
“These are people waiting to be released into ’eaven. They are being cleansed and punished at the same time. They cannot go until their family find them and bury them and release them. Lost souls until then.”
I didn’t understand the separation of souls from bodies. I don’t think I believe in an afterlife. But the idea that this foetid place was just a waiting room was somehow right.
I was looking for my brother Robert. There was no sign of him. I visited several hospitals where the wounded lay. But he wasn’t being treated. If his body still lay stacked in a store no one had got round to pulling it out for identification. And I had nothing to give the doctors to help.
I was hugely irritated by the fruitless trip and with Robert for disappearing, and with my mother for making me go.
After the Christmas holidays in 2004 he had failed to return to his accountants’ practice. As he had never married he had named me as the next of kin in the firm’s records, rather than Mother, and I was phoned and asked if I had any information. The firm had no idea where he had intended to spend Christmas. Of course, I had none either. They wondered if he could have been caught up in the tsunami disaster.
For some years I had had no communication with him at all. We were estranged and it went a long way back. Mother had done her best with us. Dad was killed in a road accident when I was six. Robert was four years older and angry about it. He didn’t come to terms with it, and when Mother married Reg, quite quickly afterwards, a much older man, Robert’s alienation became fixed. He hated Reg, and despised Mother, especially when it became clear that she had been seeing him before Dad died. Nothing would soften him.
In fact Reg was a rich man and I got on well enough with him; he was devoted to Mother. When I left home long after Robert, he and Mother moved to a distant part of Lincolnshire, into a seventeenth century manor, Fossdyke House. Then about nine months before the disappearance, Reg died, leaving Mother wrapped in grief and isolated in the big house. Reg’s children from his first marriage were now disputing his will which more or less cut them out but left Mother a wealthy woman. All this I heard about in weekly tearful phone calls, so when Robert went missing she was distraught and insisted we find him, or rather that I find him.
“I know he’s been horrid to me and you have nothing to do with him, but I can’t bear the thought of him in that terrible place. If he’s dead we must bury him properly and I won’t take no for an answer. Reg would have said the same.”
“But we don’t know he’s anywhere near there, Mother. You’re jumping to conclusions”
“Find out. Isn’t there a help line? Make an effort, Jack.”
I was teaching at a small primary school; it was an enclosed world, a womb; its little routines and rituals contained me. I didn’t want to step outside it. But in the end I got some time off to make the inquiries.
I actually started in his flat. It was difficult to find a key, and I was deeply reluctant to rummage. When we were boys he’d forcibly kept me out of his room. I kept thinking he would walk in and be furious.
There were no brochures in the flat; his bank wouldn’t tell me about his account. I didn’t know who his friends were. I couldn’t find an address book, and his computer was password protected.
Mother was right about the help line however. Eventually someone, the police I think, got hold of passenger lists on airlines. Her instinct was right too. Robert had gone to Phuket, the place where immense waves had smashed across the beaches and splintered everything, tossing bodies into death. He may have been caught up in it.
“You must go at once,” Mother cried over the phone. “Get compassionate leave.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Blood’s thicker than water.”
“I’ve never believed that; Robert’s living proof it isn’t.”
That’s how I got to Thailand.
When I got back Mother was distressed; she had hoped I would find him alive. Now we had to assume that he was dead and we would have to identify his body if it was lying in some mortuary. We were asked for his finger prints and to describe any physical peculiarities. The worst thing was his dental records because we couldn’t find his dentist. The bank eventually found a payment to one in Robert’s account.
The months went by. Robert’s records didn’t match any of the unidentified European bodies. It was a nightmare; everything was in limbo, his flat, his job, his money, his mortgage. I really didn’t want to have to go back to Thailand. In the end he was recorded as missing, believed drowned. But the Thai authorities wouldn’t give us a death certificate on that basis.
Mother was depressed, ill with it. She had the dispute with Reg’s children to deal with and now Robert’s likely death. It was too much, I think. In July she was found dead in bed at Fossdyke House. It was a great shock to me, far greater than Robert’s drowning. The doctor said it was stress. Remembering the French doctor, I wondered if she would join the souls seeking entry to the after-life in which I didn’t believe. No sooner had we buried her in the delightful nearby church than it became apparent that nothing much could be done about her own will.
Robert and a solicitor were the executors, but not me. Given Robert’s treatment of her I couldn’t understand that, but I suppose it said something about her lack of confidence in me. Most of her money was the inheritance from Reg which was still frozen pending the legal challenge by Reg’s children. She had left her money equally between Robert and me but if Robert died without children before her, it was all to come to me. Robert wasn’t officially dead so her will was frozen too. Only if it could all be unfrozen could I get my inheritance, a comfortably large amount. The solicitor and I agreed we should start by getting a declaration that Robert was officially dead.
I was told that after seven years there was a presumption of death when someone was missing, but we could try and persuade a court before that. The lawyers thought it would be a struggle so soon, but that we had a case.
Reg’s children were tired of being fobbed off. Taking advantage of the situation they sued. The solicitor as Mother’s executor had to deal with it. At the same time we were applying to the court to have Robert declared dead. The papers picked up the whole story. Headlines such as, “The Tsunami casts a long shadow”, and “The poor primary teacher who wants the lot”, over pictures of me and Mother. It was written up as a lurid family saga; they found everything out about us, and even Reg’s former wife. Somehow they made us look greedy and argumentative. And I was photographed leaving the school gates.
Uninhabited Fossdyke House was a problem. It was remote. It was beautiful and listed, but because of the frozen wills we were not allowed to sell it. We had to make sure it was looked after and I went up from time to time. Mother and Reg had chosen to live there because it was a long way away and they could be alone. Reg did a very good job in bringing it up to date, and the indoor pool was terrific.
I didn’t like staying in it by myself as a matter of fact. It was handsome enough as a house. It was not grand, just solid and very pleasant to look at. But alone in the place I found it impossible to relax. It was noisy, the building creaked. The trees were constantly shaken and pushed by the wind; outside, the rustling leaves made a noise like the sea. And I had to resist the fears of the night, solitary and without neighbours.
After our bad publicity in the papers it was time again for me to get up to Lincolnshire for a caretaker visit. I was fully expecting the press to be camped outside Fossdyke House. But it’s a long way even for them. It was the end of October.
The gardener from the village had put the heating on; although the pool was normally kept drained he had also refilled it. There were logs for the open fires and some food in the fridge.
I switched on a lot of lights; I felt more comfortable like that. Reg had put in a sound system and I could have music wherever I went. I wasn’t in the mood for a swim. Any useful place was miles away, including a pub. For some people it would be a wonderful place to escape to, to hide.
I went to bed early; I lay there listening to the sounds of the house and the trees beyond the window. Then I let go and slipped into sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night. I thought there had been a knock on the door. As I stirred, there it was again. Had the gardener come into the house? But it was black, darkness as only the countryside without a moon can lay down. I was still half asleep. I found the lights; I called out.
I went to the door and opened it slightly; in the distance I thought I could see a faint glow, beyond the landing down below. Outside the bedroom I turned on the lights as I went downstairs. I felt slightly better, but I could hear sounds coming from the direction of the swimming pool.
The pool was down a short corridor in a barn like structure at the back of the house, tastefully done of course. I opened the door, the overhead lights were switched on. Someone was swimming vigorously towards the other end. It was a man, and what at first I took to be a swimming cap was a bald head. He turned and saw me. He lay back in the water with his head and shoulders on the edge of the pool, his legs floating in front of him.
“Who the hell are you?” I shouted.
“A good question, little Jack.”
I knew the voice, but he was almost unrecognisable. “Robert?”
He called back, “Once I was. It’s Halloween. Had you forgotten? This is my trick and your treat. I took advantage of the wave to disappear. In the world out there I’m no-one, no-trace. I’ve never had so much fun, but I thought I’d come and collect my inheritance, all of it. You’ll have to divi up, Jack, and I’ll push off again into nowhere.”
I sat down abruptly where I was. Was I properly awake, was it a dream? It was appalling. He was alive and we were asking for him to be declared dead.
He called across the pool, “You’ll be able to sell the story.”
“It killed Mother.”
“You wouldn’t expect me to care.”
“You broke in.”
I have never thought of myself as a violent man but I could usually beat Robert when we fought, and I boxed at school. But I knew with absolute clarity I would kill him now. No one knew where he was. He was missing, about to be presumed dead. He was a non-person. And I wasn’t going to share my inheritance with him. Now I would put him to rest; send him onwards out of purgatory where he had been wandering. He would be really dead, with all souls.
It was easier to do than I could have imagined. I ran fast down the poolside and jumped in. I fought him; he was taken completely by surprise. He didn’t expect it of me. I got him under water and he drowned properly this time.
I buried him among the far trees, very carefully and deep. I let the water out of the pool. And I returned the bicycle he’d hired in some bogus name.
Robert was declared dead by the court, which of course he was, though not quite as believed, and I bought off Reg’s children. I stopped teaching, and, when the money was in the bank, I went to live in Fossdyke House.
I keep an eye on Robert. There’s a lot of undergrowth now.
© 2016 Roger Jefferies
A retired part-time resident of Broadstairs for twenty-five years. Roger writes fiction, especially short stories. He likes France and food.