Monday, 14 October 1918
Thomas Wey got dressed very slowly, feeling for his buttons and doing them up without looking down at his shirtfront. The trousers were more difficult but he sat on the edge of the bed and pulled them on, squinting slightly as his head was pulled forward by the motion of his arms. He left the waistcoat and tie on the chair and spent several minutes getting into his coat, stopping often to rest. Dressed, he was too hot. The pain was wobbling towards the front of his face and down into his teeth so that every movement was a shock, even though he planned it carefully and did nothing to surprise himself.
His first objective was to reach the table where he’d put the letter. Fixing his eye on the envelope’s white rectangle, he put his left hand on his temple and used his right to guide him on a path that allowed him to rest on various pieces of furniture. A cough, excited by movement, halted him but he finally achieved the table and leaned on it for a minute, touching the letter with his forefinger. He thought he would fall but the strength remaining in his arms held him up while his legs swayed and twitched. A sharp pain in his chest was beginning to interfere with his breathing, letting him inhale but only to a certain depth; the cough was producing a rusty-orange phlegm that made him retch.
By the time he reached the front door he was barely conscious, sliding down the railing to the pavement and then flopping onto the gate as he tried to locate himself; he could see the post box, a red fleck in the distance. As he turned to it the space in his lungs diminished further. He was drowning and there was nothing in his field of view but the hard grey stone of the street.
I was working in the window, sanding down a lid, when this little lad came running up and banged on the glass, shouting, ‘There’s a blue man in the road!’ I didn’t understand him at first but I could see a crowd beginning to gather so I went out to have a look. When they saw me, they stood away. That often happens wherever the body is; there’s a parting and a standing back.
The boy followed me through the crowd. He pointed down at the man who was lying half on the pavement and half in the road. ‘Look, he’s blue!’ And yes, he was. His lips and ears were purple-blue, like a plum, and the skin on his face was mottled and pale but still tinged with blue, as if he’d been wiped with an inky rag. He was thirty-five or thereabouts and wore no shoes or socks. He had no hat that I could see, either on his head or off. His left hand was half under him, with a bit of paper poking out, but the other was lying across his chest, so I took his wrist and felt for a pulse, more for the sake of the crowd than anything; he was obviously dead.
The traffic was building up by then, people honking and shouting, so a couple of us lifted him up and took him into my workshop. I was alone that morning, Walter and Albert having gone off with a coffin for a woman who’d died the night before. We put the man on one of the benches and I sent the boy to get Frank, the local sergeant, then I cleared everybody out and waited; I don’t like to touch anything when I’m on my own like that, in case there’s money and so forth. I stood away, but I couldn’t keep from looking. That was unusual. I never look as a rule; why would I? We must have been there a full five minutes until Frank came in and made a racket, banging the door shut and whistling.
The dead man had dressed all wrong, buttons skew-whiff, no tie, bare feet. The clothes were all good quality, so he had money or he’d had some in the past. His hair was a bit long and his nails were dirty but he seemed clean enough; without undressing him, we couldn’t be sure if he’d been sent home wounded from the Front. There was nothing in any of his pockets to help us out, only a few coins and a key in his coat and a bloody handkerchief in his trousers, nothing with a name on or an address.
‘I heard a woman in the crowd,’ I said to Frank. ‘She was saying she’d seen him on the steps of number seventeen. That’s more or less where we found him, on the street. She said he was squeezing his head between his hands and swaying about. She thought he was daft.’
Number seventeen’s a boarding house and always busy with people passing through.
‘I’ll pop round there,’ Frank said. ‘See if they know who he is. You telephone the mortuary.’
When the van had taken the body, I went to finish the coffin I’d been working on and that’s when I found the letter. For a moment, I thought the postman might have dropped it on the first delivery but then I remembered that the man had been holding something when I’d gone to him in the road. I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time but now it was in front of me, on the floor, I felt nervous. I don’t remember ever waiting for an important letter but I imagine that you might be a bit jittery when you see it, in case it’s not what you want, or more than you dare hope for. I picked it up and looked at the writing on the envelope.
‘Sir Arthur Newsholme, Principal Medical Officer, Local Government Board.’ That’s all it said. I should have taken it straight round to Frank. It wasn’t mine to open. It was government business. But why would anybody doing government business be living at number seventeen? And why was he posting an ordinary letter without a street name? Didn’t they use special bags or boxes? Walter and Albert came in then, so I went upstairs to my flat and sat down at the table. And then, I can’t tell you why, I opened it.
The letter was written on cheap paper with a mad sort of hand, no two words the same, some upright, some to the right or left. It was dated for the previous day, which suggested that he’d been too ill to post it straightaway but had forced himself up that morning, thinking he might be about to die.
I am dismayed to have had no reply to my previous letters and therefore write again in urgency. I repeat: a plague is now among us which may well leave the earth to the animals. You must stop the movement of troops, close our ports and warn others to follow suit. I beg you again not to dismiss this but to visit me at the above address. I am a man of science. I have proof. I cannot write more.
Yours in fear, Dr Thomas Wey
He must have been a lunatic, was my first thought. And then I felt that I shouldn’t have opened the letter at all and that perhaps I should post it on. He might have had a genuine reason to be writing to this man, Newsholme, and I had no right to interfere with that. I didn’t know what he’d died of, not then. I didn’t post it on. It might never have got to its destination anyway, all crumpled like that and with no proper address, although I could have put it in a new envelope and put another stamp on it.
And this might sound like another strange thing to remember about that day, but when I’d sat down at the piano, which I always do after breakfast, the E flat below middle C had been sticking, swollen with damp. I could never play knowing that a note couldn’t be struck, even if I didn’t want it. You can’t enjoy yourself if you’re trying to avoid a note. A piano’s not furniture to me. I don’t like gewgaws on it: photographs or dried flowers or, worse, real flowers with the danger of the water spilling. It’s not a shelf.
I’d sanded down the swollen key before work and I’d been intending to try it out as soon as I could get back upstairs but when I had a moment I walked to Thomas Wey’s lodgings instead. I know the landlady there, Mrs White; she said that Frank had already been round to look for anything that might help to get the man buried. Dr Wey had been there for three months or so and he’d never mentioned any relatives or friends to her, except for an uncle, a Mr Wey, who used to send the rent every month because Dr Wey had been sent back from France with what she had always believed was a bad stomach wound, ‘or something in that department’, as he ate nothing to speak of. I think she was enjoying the fuss because she was only too happy to take me up to his room so that I could see for myself.
The bed was as he must have left it with filthy handkerchiefs dropped here and there on the blankets. There was a pen, ink and some sheets of paper on the table, and a few clothes hanging in the wardrobe, with a hat and a pair of shoes. Ten or twelve books stood in two stacks on the floor, next to the bed.
Mrs White said, ‘He went sudden, didn’t he? I haven’t seen him for a day or two, but he was there at breakfast on Friday, picking away. You’ll get paid, don’t you worry. The old boy’s never late with the rent.’
I went to the table and tried to see what Thomas Wey had written but it was hard to read in the dim light and I didn’t want to appear over keen.
Then she asked me if I’d like to take the papers. ‘I don’t want the bother of sending them off, do I? Do you want anything else?’ She indicated the wardrobe with her thumb.
‘I’ll just take these,’ I said. ‘In case.’ Now I had, so to speak, stolen his letter and his other writings. There have been opportunities all my life to take from the deceased and it had never occurred to me to do so. The papers compounded my dishonesty and I have no excuse for it. I asked Mrs White if she knew what he did with his time but of course she had no idea; he was in and out at all hours, that was all she could say. She gave me the old man’s address for billing and I went home with the papers held between my hands.