Friday 30 December 2016 (2)

Depressed before big Isis riverboat disaster, initially … or one fifty years ago? (8)

And that is all I remember. At some point I must have passed out for the next thing I know it is morning and I am lying head down on my bed. I find I am still wearing a t-shirt and a sock, but nothing else. Wintry sunlight summons me to the new day.

Momentary confusion turns to despair as I realize it is still December 30th, still my dying day or (the very best I can hope for) the day I am arrested for the murder of my old boss.

For an instant, I feel sure that last night was all some kind of dream but the cuts on my forehead and the blood on the duvet are real enough. To say that I feel wrecked hardly suffices – this is wreckage on a Titanic scale. My brain seems to have been flattened by a steamroller and my stomach is as fragile as a Fabergé nipple-ring.

I know what I must do with all possible haste: check online for flights out of the UK, head for Brazil (well, it worked for Ronnie Biggs) and establish a new identity as a lifeguard or football pundit. If only I had had the foresight to purchase a fake passport! The airports will surely have been alerted by the time I get there. What about the tiny airport next to Kidlington? I could be there in twenty minutes. Perhaps I can hop on a plane to Jersey and then take it from there?

But several hours have elapsed since my accidental slaying of Vlad and still there is no one battering at the door. Perhaps Ozzie has ignored my suggestion and set foot in Vlad’s house? With luck, he has removed some (all?) of the incriminating evidence, shut the door and crept off home. If so, the corpse might lie there for days before it is discovered by an astute postman or a neighbour with well-developed olfactory powers.

Should I go round and check? No, that would be pushing my luck. More likely, Ozzie, being the fine upstanding citizen that he is, has summoned the police and is currently “helping them with their enquiries”. I don’t want to call his mobile but perhaps it is safe to try to ring him at home? No better plan presents itself, so I make the call to his home number. No one picks it up. In the end I manage to leave a reasonably casual message asking him to call me back “about the wedding”.

The wedding! OMG, the wedding! If I am not going to attempt to leave the country strapped to the underside of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, surely I should try to carry on “as normal” and fulfil my Best Manly duties? My heart sinks at the prospect, almost setting off my fragile stomach en route to the ground. I gave my word to Phil and Marie-Claire that I would do it. I might as well do something useful with my last day, after all.

The wedding ceremony is to take place in University College Chapel and, if I am to get there in time for kick-off, I will need to move fast. As I try to hide the bruising on my face and throw on my hired togs, I search my conscience for some sign of remorse. A man has died. OK, I didn’t set out with the intention of killing him – it was a complete accident – but a tragedy has occurred which could have been avoided if I hadn’t got drunk and connived in the ridiculous notion of defacing someone’s property. How can I live with myself? But after a thorough audit of my befuddled state, I can locate very little regret, only an instinct for self-preservation and the hope that somehow things will all blow over.

I gulp down a life-saving cuppa made from half a jar of Nescafé and am just about ready to leave. But there is someone outside the front door. A thousand possibilities trample through my hippocampus until a letter plops onto the doormat. I pick it up, noting the Procter and Harrison stamp and the pretentious hedgehog logo, but there is no time to digest it now. So I stuff it into the inside-pocket of my morning suit and head off into town on foot. I note in passing that the Botley Rd has not been sealed off by a police cordon. People are going about their business apparently oblivious to the date on the calendar and it is actually quite a bright day, albeit with a fierce Arctic wind blowing.

I traverse the puddles in Frideswide Square and walk briskly past the boarded-up Central Library considering my defence. Surely the jury will see that I was merely the unwitting medium through which History (the capital letter is important, I think) repeated itself. It was a hundred years to the very day, perhaps to the very minute, since the murder of Rasputin. I did not choose to be cast as a latter-day Felix Yusupov. Perhaps Ozzie (like Oswald Rayner before him) duped me into playing out this charade? No, we have both been fitted up. It is clear who is to blame, m’lud – History, that serial offender! History should be locked away, for all our safety, especially on 30th December 2116.

It’s an unusual defence, I grant you.

I take some comfort from the observation that neither Yusupov nor Rayner paid any obvious penalty for their misdemeanours despite their evident guilt. Perhaps I too will go unpunished?

I arrive at Univ with about five minutes to spare. The bridegroom is fretting like an old mother hippo just outside the chapel. The Chapel! Like Gawain, I have journeyed here at the death of the old year, just about ready to embrace my fate, whatever that might be. At least it has not been painted green.

“Where on earth have you been, Alex?” Phil bellows across the quad.

“It’s only four minutes to,” I point out. Out of the corner of my eye, I see two men dressed in black skulking in the doorway of Staircase V. One of them bears a strange resemblance to Dwayne, Clinton’s minder at Frilford. Surely not? There is no time for such a thought.

“But you’re the Best Man,” Phil is saying. “A fat lot of help you’ve been. Still, at least you can do a bit of ushering, now that you’re here. There is no time to tell you the extraordinary news. Here are the rings, by the way…”

So I do a spot of ushering, sending latecomers to their allotted sides. There is a good turn-out on Marie-Claire’s side but relatively few of Phil’s kith/kin seem to have made it. I think of Shelley’s wedding two hundred years ago today – surely this will be a somewhat happier affair?

The person I really want to see, of course, is Ozzie, but there is no sign at all of him. I picture him clapped in irons in the dungeons of Oxford Castle. Perhaps, like Sydney Carton, he has taken the rap for his feckless friend. Is that the extraordinary news?

The college is in most respects still on its Christmas recess, so, apart from the lurking heavies, we have the place to ourselves. The ceremony is an unremarkable affair conducted by the Rev. Andrew Gregory, the red-headed college chaplain. Ozzie was due to play the organ but one of Marie-Claire’s relatives fills in at short notice and we are able to plough through a couple of rudimentary hymns. The bride looks exquisite in a simple white gown, her hair artfully raised at the back to reveal her long, elegant neck – Phil is a very lucky man. In a different world it might have been me marrying this sweet, brilliant woman. OK, a very different world …

I produce the simple gold rings at the appointed juncture. A special marriage licence has been procured from the Lord Chancellor of the Privy Chamberpot, or some such, and the two lovebirds sign it in front of the assembled throng. Then there is the interminable ritual of the photographs, tastefully arranged against the ivy-clad backdrop of Front Quad, right under Shelley’s old rooms, before we all troop off to Folly Bridge. Let the revels commence!

The Folly Bargères looks like a huge and flimsy paper boat, tugged at its moorings by the passing torrent. It looks no match for the Isis in the aftermath of some of the worst flooding that Oxford has seen since global warming began. The icy north wind will be at our backs as we lurch erratically towards Iffley Lock and on towards Sandford, Radley and Abingdon. At some point we will turn around and fight our way back against the current and the wind. I can only hope that the Folly has a little more clearance than Shelley’s life-size paper boat, the Don Juan. It seems like a strange kind of madness that I should be on such a boat on such a morning.

Fifty years ago today, Donald Campbell gazed out over Coniston Water and wondered whether conditions were right to make his long-postponed attempt at the world water-speed record aboard Bluebird. He knew that the slightest gust of wind would put him at mortal risk while travelling at 300 mph. Every day that passed was draining his funds but the winds were plainly too strong on December 30th 1966. Five days later he lost patience with the English weather and made his bid for glory anyway. Bluebird, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Campbell’s body lay undiscovered until 2001 when diver Bill Smith was inspired to look for the wreck after hearing the Marillion song “Out of This World”, written about that tragedy.

As Best Man, am I de facto captain of this ship? At least, I don’t have to steer the thing. A somewhat tubby man with a straggly beard and a jaunty beret seems to be taking on that job, so I have a quick word with him before anyone embarks.

“Is it all right to go out on the water today?”

Captain Pugwash grunts ambiguously.

“Yeah, should be just about OK,” he says at last. “And we’ll never be more than twenty yards from the shore, will we? But we might have to take it in turns with the life-jacket.”

His wheezy chuckle reveals his nicotine-stained dentures. I thank him for his reassurance and resist the temptation to ask him whether he stoppeth one of three wedding guests. While most of us have covered the short distance from Univ on foot, the happy couple have hired a limo which pulls up close to Folly Bridge. Most of the revellers have climbed on board the barge by now but I wait onshore until the guests of honour have reached us.

“So what was that extraordinary news?” I ask Phil as he sweeps by with his bride on his arm. He and Marie-Claire exchange glances.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” he smiles. Soon I am the only one left ashore. I feel it is the point of no return. I take a deep breath before stepping aboard the boat and making my way to the main cabin where the tables are set for the wedding feast. The pungent aroma of the hog roast assails me. I am not over-fond of pork at the best of times and, with the lurch of the boat on the water and the residual effects of a night on the Madeira, I am already struggling to hold it together.

There is a brief delay while various items of food are ferried aboard by the shivering serving crew. We are almost ready to set off when I see there is a last-minute arrival at the makeshift jetty. It takes me a little while to focus and make out who the latecomer is. It’s Ozzie! He does not have a police escort. Never have I been more elated to see anyone in my life.

Having kissed the bride and enjoyed a brief moment of banter with Phil, Ozzie comes over to join me in my quiet corner of the cabin. He is utterly unencumbered by members of our fine constabulary and there is a smile on his face.

“What a complete twat you are, Alex!”

I nod in agreement.

“What’s happened?” I croak.

“I’ve just spent the night in the JR, that’s what’s happened.”

“You mean …”

“Yes, Vlad is in poor shape. His CT scan showed some concussion and some pretty deep wounds from that broken madeira bottle. He lost a lot of blood.”

“But he’s OK now?” I cannot believe my good fortune.

“He’s fine. A bus had overturned on the M40 and seventeen injured passengers were ambulanced in to the JR. A&E was hopelessly overstretched.  We had to wait all night to get to the front of the queue but the scan revealed nothing untoward in the old cranium. He had to have a few stitches in his jaw and he may be left with a bit of a scar but nothing too drastic.”

“I thought he was dead, Ozzie!”

“Ah. I did guess that might be the case. What the hell happened in there?”

“I should think Vlad has a better idea of what happened in there than I do. I was completely off my face.”

“Serves you right for knocking back 80% of that Madeira.”

“I feel sick even remembering it.”

“Vlad went through various phases in the course of the night. Shock, anger, relief, a desire for murderous revenge, gratitude that I’d found him and called an ambulance …”

“Am I going to do time for this?”

“No, Alex. It’s OK. It shouldn’t be OK, but it is. Vlad’s recollection is that you were waving this bottle about and he made this stupid decision to try to get it off you. You held on, Vlad lost his grip, the bottle swung round and smacked him on the jaw, shattering in the process.”

“Strangely, that’s how I remember it too. Pretty feeble glass if you ask me.”

“And somehow he ended up slipping on the polished floor and toppling down the stairs. He is suffering from the delusion that you did not push him or intend to hurt him in any way.”

“So he’s not going to press charges?”

“I suggest you go round with a crate of the finest Madeira and apologise profusely, not just for your drunken bottle-waving but, rather more significantly, leaving him in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Why didn’t you call an ambulance yourself?”

“I wasn’t thinking straight. I thought he was dead. How was I to know that he’d do a Rasputin and rise again? My first thought was to get out of the door and catch the first flight to Rio, a Rembrandt under each arm.”

“Yes, you did seem to be in a bit of a hurry when I saw you. Turns out it’s your lucky day.”

“I did bash my head on the ice.”

“You should get that checked out. Do you want me to run you to A&E?”

“For some more tomography? Not this time, Ozzie, but I owe you one.”

“You owe me half of that bottle of Madeira, certainly. It’s been a long old night but a productive one from my point of view. During all those hours in A & E, I talked him through the whole plagiarism thing. He was surprisingly reasonable about it and accepted there was plenty of evidence that I’d never even seen this ancient thesis, not that it has much in common with my masterpiece anyway. As he said, it was never personal; he was just looking out for the good of the college.”

“That’s great news! And history doesn’t quite repeat itself!”

“History? What’s history got to do with it?”

“Well, it was you who lectured us on assassins called Oswald, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but …”

“Think about it. It was a hundred years to the day, no, to the hour since Rasputin was murdered, not by Prince Felix Yusupov but by his young English friend, Oswald Rayner …”

“So you’re saying I could have gone in to Vlad’s house, discovered the old fool was alive and kicking and finished him off myself?”

“While I would have carried the can for it!”

“A brilliant plan, Alex – or should I say Felix? – I’m only sorry I let you down in the execution. Perhaps I’m not cut out for the life of an assassin, after all.”

“So you’ve still got your fellowship and I should roll up to the office first thing on Monday morning?”

“Er, no, I don’t think he was going to go quite that far. You had just turned up at his house blind-drunk and nearly killed him. I should give it a couple of weeks, or decades!”

“Ha. I wouldn’t want the ghastly job back anyway!”

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