Nobody could explain the disappearance of Mr K, not even the Countess, or should one say Hraběnka, since it was rumoured she came from Brno. Indeed, it was doubly inexplicable – as those few people whose lives intersected that of Mr K pointed out – because he was the sort of person who generally stayed put. As an impecunious student he had taken this policy to extremes, and, suitably attired, had supplemented his grant by posing as a living statue on the Embankment or some other lucrative patch. That was before he took a job working for the civil service, at a lowly level in the personnel office, where he excelled in reliability.
His behaviour up to the day he apparently went missing was normal. His affairs were in order. He had not withdrawn money from the bank, and his passport was to be found in a bedside drawer which also contained one hundred and twenty-seven photographs of the Countess taken in the immediate vicinity of her house. His car, now parked on the street in front, had been recorded the previous day by a traffic camera in Wells, but that was no surprise since he was known to spend most weekends making photographic records of English cathedrals.
The truth is that those who made it their business to solve this mystery were wasting their time, for the simple reason that he had not disappeared. There was, of course, a mystery to solve, but it was a different one.
Mr K inhabited the ground floor of a rented house in Bristol. The Edwardian terrace was not up-market, like they have in Clifton, but not ‘working class’ either. Somewhere in between. It was difficult to find a parking place on the quiet and leafy road, but it suited Mr K perfectly. The back garden, which he shared with the people upstairs, was accessed by a narrow passage-way which also separated his house from the one where the Countess had arrived eighteen months ago. That she came from Eastern Europe was generally agreed, but little more was certain. She lived alone, also on the ground floor.
Every weekday morning, at 0815 hours, the Countess left her house to catch the bus. In summer, she wore a gabardine coat and in winter a fur-trimmed parka. Mr K had looked into the matter and had decided, based on the popularity of furs in eastern Europe, that the fur was genuine though nothing more exotic than rabbit. She always wore a fresh rose in her buttonhole which puzzled Mr K because he had never seen her buying, or even carrying, a bunch of roses, nor were there rose bushes in the garden.
The Countess worked in the cosmetics section of a large department store, where she was generally acknowledged to be the most charismatic and smartly dressed employee. No-one knew where she went at weekends, but she was not to be seen anywhere near her house.
Every weekday morning, at 0820 hours, Mr K left his house to catch a bus (not the same one as the Countess’). It was always a rush, and he admitted to himself that it would be better to leave earlier, but in so doing he would miss the departure of the Countess and subsequently be unable to record the colour of her rose in his notebook. In his secret moments, he imagined leaving home at 0815 hours and engaging the Countess in some light-hearted banter, but in the character of Mr K diffidence was elevated to despotic levels. During those long hours on the Embankment he had learned the momentous lessons of non-communication until they became a part of his fabric.
About a year before he disappeared, Mr K had bought a small rose pergola from the garden centre. The four uprights, arching over to meet at the top, formed a bower in the centre of which, at ground level, was a low plinth designed to accommodate a bird bath or similar ornament. This structure occupied most of the tiny space between his front window and a low wall fronting onto the pavement. His plan, which needs no explanation, was frustrated however by the stubborn refusal of any roses to grow over the arch. He had the soil analysed for honey fungus, replaced it with compost and tried several different types of rose, but they just wilted, lost their leaves, and died. In the end, he gave up, attributing his failure to the hand of fate.
Mr K liked to think that he dressed nattily, which was true. At forty-one he looked smart in his short-sleeved shirt with a designer emblem on the breast pocket, loose jacket, clean jeans and black shoes with elastic on the sides and toes which almost came to a point. At weekends, as everyone knew, he would breakfast early, and drive to one of the great English cathedral cities. Then, one weekend, he appeared to disappear.
On Sunday morning, after an early breakfast, Mr K opened the cupboard he used and took out his camera, a sturdy tripod and a powerful telescopic lens. It was his intention to make a detailed photographic record of the West front of Wells cathedral, with particular attention to the stone figures in their canopied niches. He made good time and shortly after ten thirty he was negotiating the one-way system towards the cathedral precinct. It was at this point that he encountered an obstacle. The road he had planned to use was temporarily closed by a burst water pipe and a diversion was in place. Following this led to an area unfamiliar to Mr K which made him feel uncomfortable. It was a hot day and his modest car did not have air-conditioning. Mr K started to sweat and, as he abhorred driving with open windows, resorted to turning up the fan on his climate control, even though it was very noisy. At a crucial junction, the diversion sign was ambiguous and he was soon swallowed up by a busy one-way system.
Mr K was finding it hard to think, but with difficulty extracted his phone from a trouser pocket with the intention of accessing the navigation facility, but there was nowhere to stop, so he turned into a side road down which, unfortunately, a cement mixer was reversing. In the ensuing stand-off there was a certain amount of shouting, though Mr K found it hard to make out what people were saying above the roar of the fan. By the time he had reversed into the main road, narrowly avoiding an irate pedestrian, he was losing interest in the niceties of traffic etiquette. He drew into a bus stop but for some reason he could not get the instructions right on the phone which kept defaulting to previous destinations, petrol stations and places of interest. It was low on charge and, as he searched in vain for the cable, he noticed a bus coming.
Mr K re-joined the traffic and, to his relief, a disembodied voice called out from his phone with confident instructions which he followed to the letter, unaware that it was following a pedestrian route. It was for this reason that he found himself driving down a narrow road that had been closed off for a Sunday fun run. He tried to execute a three-point turn but he was too late. The runners were upon him, dancing up and down, banging on the windscreen and pushing their faces to the window, their ugly gestures reminiscent of the gargoyles on a Gothic cathedral. A man with a megaphone was exhorting the contestants against a background of loud music. Mr K felt he might be losing his reason. In desperation he took a random turning and found himself in a small market square with one free parking space. At the meter he had no change, it said he could pay by phone but, when he dialled, the number was dead.
It was at this point that he noticed a young man with short, dazzlingly blonde hair, tight white jeans, crimson silk shirt and pale green steel-rimmed glasses. He came over and stood next to Mr K.
‘You don’t have change for a fiver, by any chance,’ said Mr K. His voice was tremulous.
‘Sorry,’ the young man said, ‘how long are you staying?’
‘Maybe two hours.’
‘Here you are.’ The young man handed him £2.80 in change. ‘I work at the hair salon round the corner if you want to pay me back, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.’ He walked off.
It was doubtless on account of his recent unpleasant experience that Mr K found, when he reached the precinct, that he had lost all interest in photography. The stone figures, especially those so worn and disfigured by the elements that they could have been sculpted by Antony Gormley, seemed no different from the demonic runners. He felt strange, unnerved, and wanted to go home. He had a cup of tea which cost him £2.20.
Mr K had no difficulty locating the hair salon. ‘I knew you would come and pay me back,’ said the young man, putting his arm round Mr K’s shoulder, ‘I’m Gai.’
‘That’s fine by me,’ said Mr K, ‘but I should inform you that I am not.’
‘No, not like that,’ the man’s laugh was like birdsong. ‘My name, Gabriel. My parents liked Thomas Hardy. Here, I’ll give you a haircut, on the house.’
‘Very kind, but no thank you,’ said Mr K.
‘I insist. It’s no trouble, in fact it’s ordained.’
Within a second, an assistant had wrapped a sheet round his neck, tucked it in at the back and ushered him into a vacant chair.
‘Coffee?’ said Gai.
‘No thanks. I’ve just had some tea.’
A cup and saucer was thrust into his reluctant hand.
‘You’ll love this. Our coffee is special.’
Gai was right. The coffee had an unfamiliar exotic fragrance, redolent of the middle-east. Mr K felt his vexation recede, yielding to an inner peace, the heat of the day fanned by Gai’s musical voice.
The assistant removed the sheet and Gai brushed around his neck. Mr K noted that there was no hair on the floor, or anywhere else for that matter. A glance in the mirror revealed no obvious change in his hair, but, despite this, Mr K looked quite different. It seemed to him that he looked like a God, though he could not be precise in what way this had come about.
‘A perfect job,’ said Gai standing back, ‘Mint?’
Mr K took the mint and noticed, for the first time, a rose tattooed on Gai’s arm.
‘Do you like my rose? of course you do’ said Gai. ‘Now we must visit a friend.’
Mr K found himself following the hairdresser, his uvula tingling in a nebula of peppermint. A short walk down a rickety arcade of artisans’ studios and stalls led to a small atelier. The friend, in the back room, was equally youthful, with that reassuring clean-shaven appearance you come to expect from someone fielding at extra cover on the village green.
Gai addressed the friend. ‘You haven’t met Mr K, Michael, he is a friend of mine and wants a tattoo.’
Despite the clouding of his mind, Mr K was fairly sure that he did not want a tattoo, and attempted to raise an objection.
‘That’s no problem,’ said Michael, ‘I will inscribe it on your ankle. That way nobody will see it. I take it you don’t wear shorts.’ Were there faint echoes, in that voice, of the disembodied traffic man in his mobile phone?
‘No,’ said Mr K, as Gai pulled up his left trouser and Michael assembled his instruments.
‘What shall it be? A rose, of course, but which one?’
‘You decide,’ said Mr K,
Michael set to work and, as pinpoints of exquisite tenderness flooded Mr K’s serene consciousness, the artist spoke quietly, as if to himself, ‘Gloire de Dijon, I reckon, is the way forward.’
That night Mr K, on a whim,decided to do something. He waited until ten-o-clock before opening the cupboard he didn’t use. Everything was still there. The wreath, the toga, the silver frosting, the jars of marble coloured make-up. The accoutrements of a lost life, of his youth and aspirations. It took him more than an hour to apply the make-up, working methodically from his bare feet to every feature of his face, which he had shaved very smooth. He knotted the toga over his left shoulder and stepped out into a melting night, the silver incandescence of his hair girdled in a band of laurel.
Mr K took up his position on the plinth at midnight. He stood beneath the bower, upright as befits a Roman senator, his right hand extended slightly forward. The road was deserted except for the occasional nocturnal reveller, oblivious to Mr K’s solitary vigil.
It was about an hour later that Mr K became aware of an itch in his left ankle. Professional pride inhibited him from scratching it, even though it persisted and extended, down and up, to the dorsum of his foot and the lateral aspect of his shin. He began to wonder if the tattoo had become inflamed, or even infected. Having established that no one was in sight, he bent over to inspect the ankle. He noted there was no swelling, but the tattoo seemed more extensive than he recalled. A small tendril had burst through the make-up and had twined itself a few inches up his shin. Mr K was happy to accept that this was attributable to the chemicals in the tattoo and that the effect, as of a strand of ivy climbing an ancient statue, contributed to his artistic endeavour. What is more, the itching subsided, to be replaced by a tender warmth, as though his leg was being cocooned in soft constricting material, like a child tucked up in bed by his mother.
At 3 am Mr K inspected his leg a second time. Two more shoots had emerged from the tattoo, whilst the original tendril was now well above his knee. In places the marble of his leg, which was comfortably numb, was almost obscured by a tangle of stems, leaves and petioles. It seemed too that his foot had increased in weight to the extent that he was unable to lift it. Mr K was not disturbed by these unusual observations, noting that the inability to move his foot facilitated the effect he was working so hard to achieve.
At about four thirty Mr K heard a sharp crack and noticed that the plinth had broken in two.
It started to rain, but not heavily.
The Countess emerged from her house a few minutes earlier than usual. She wore a new gabardine coat, of exceptional elegance and refinement, but no rose in the button-hole. She crossed the path to her neighbour’s front patch.
The intervening hours had been eventful ones for Mr K, who stood before her in the misty rain, a Roman senator fashioned in calm Carrara marble of polished subtlety. A prodigal climbing rose, radiant with pink and apricot inflorescence, ran riot over his trunk and limbs, raindrops falling from the petals into the scented air. From his outstretched hand she plucked an immaculate bloom, the bud just opening, and held it with both hands to her face. She spoke to herself with a vibrant huskiness.
‘Ah, Gloire de Dijon. That I should ever taste that fragrance again’.
Mr K, who by now was virtually immobile, contrived a barely perceptible flexion at the waist and felt reassured by the homage of his ultimate displacement.
She held his ravished gaze as she pinned the rose into her button-hole, raindrops and sap from the broken stem streaming down the front of her coat.
The rose, like its predecessors, withered and fell before nightfall, but the statue persisted, only gradually falling prey to the desecration of time. The enquiry focused initially on the Countess, doubtless prompted by the discovery of Mr K’s photographs. When asked countless times if she knew where he had gone, she eventually responded that she knew as much about his disappearance as she did about the dissolution of a caterpillar. Then they left her alone.
The Countess disappeared soon after these events. It was generally agreed, at the department store, that she had returned to Brno, though nobody was sure.
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