The Invisible Man

6.4.2013

By Duncan Fallowell

A chance encounter in a remote Welsh town sparks an obsessive quest.

And so I decided to return to the seaside village of New Quay and call on Alastair Graham and invite him out to dinner. It was October 1981; I travelled across England to Presteigne and asked Nick Jones-Evans to accompany me for support, and we drove to the coast and booked into the New Quay Hotel. Nick was wearing his tweed cape and deerstalker and also smoking a pipe. He quite often does, but on this occasion the Sherlock Holmes get-up was absurdly appropriate. As usual on the west coast of Wales, the weather was windy and drizzly. We trudged over to the Dolau Inn, where there was a major setback. “You used to be able to time your clock by Mr. Graham. But he hardly ever comes by these days. He hasn’t been well. And he won’t let you in. Round here we call his house ‘The Kremlin.’ ”

Perhaps it was naïve to expect someone who’d deliberately withdrawn from society to give a welcome to strangers -- and “Kremlin”? It sounded dreadful. But undeterred and optimistic, we walked over to his home, the finest in the row, double-fronted, painted dark pink, with an 18th-century porch. A dolphin stood on either side of the entrance. I knocked on the front door. There was a long interval. Nick and I looked at each other nervously. At last there was the sound of a lock being turned. The door opened sheepishly, a third of the way. Those blue, sad eyes, which I recognized at once, peered over a pair of spectacles in steady, watery silence. It was the same old man I’d met in the pub years before, the same trim beard, the same freshly pressed nautical clothes and blue deck shoes. But he looked much thinner. There was no “Can I help you?” nor even a “Yes?” Only a stare. So I said, “Please forgive us for calling like this,” and I introduced Nick and myself, mentioning that actually we’d met before, and I explained my interest in Evelyn Waugh and the 1920s—whereupon he started to flap like a cornered bird and became quite desperate.

“I’ve had a stroke, I can’t remember anything. I’ve nothing to say!” His eyes registered even greater consternation as he caught sight of Nick’s Sherlock Holmes outfit.

I was stumped. For some reason a response as abrupt as this had never crossed my mind. I considered my interest in history, literature, and life to be entirely legitimate and in need of no special pleading. How wrong I was. I played another card: “Would you like to join us for dinner this evening?” In the circumstances it sounds mad, put down like that, and his reaction was worse still.

“Oh, no! I can’t go out, I’m not fit to be seen! I had a stroke last year, I’m an invalid, I can’t think at all, everything was so long ago—he was older than me, you know.”

Well -- that last observation of his popped out oddly, accompanied by something slightly less frantic in the eyes. What on earth was going on in his head? It suggested guilt, an attempt to transfer responsibility for something bad. “But weren’t you Sebastian Flyte?” I blurted out, now in some disarray myself.

He flinched back into the hall.

“No, not me, not me -- er, it was a friend of mine.”

“But Waugh said it was you.” I blundered appallingly on. “And in the original manuscript of Brideshead Revisited Waugh wrote Alastair instead of Sebastian.”

“Please, no, I’m an invalid, I can’t remember anything.”

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