And when Mr Aster was informed by Mr Fratton that under the terms of the late Sir Andrew Vincell’s will he was a beneficiary to the extent of six thousand Ordinary Shares in British Vinvinyl, Ltd, Mr Aster appeared, as Mr Fratton expressed it to a colleague later, to miss for a while on several plugs.
The relevant clause added that the bequest was made ‘in recognition of a most valuable service which he once rendered me’. The nature of this service was not specified, nor was it any of Mr Fratton’s business to inquire into it, but the veil over his curiosity was scarcely opaque.
The windfall, standing just then at 83s. 6d. per share, came at a fortunate moment in Mr Aster’s affairs. Realization of a small part of the shares enabled him to settle one or two pressing problems, and in the course of this re-ordering, the two men met several times. At length there came a time when Mr Fratton, urged on by curiosity, stepped slightly closer to the edge of professional discretion than he usually permitted himself, to remark in a tentative fashion:
‘You did not know Sir Andrew very well, did you?’
It was the kind of advance that Mr Aster could easily have discouraged had he wished to, but, in fact, he made no attempt at parry. Instead, he looked thoughtful, and eyed Mr Fratton with speculation.
‘I met Sir Andrew once,’ he said. ‘For perhaps an hour and a half.’
‘That is rather what I thought,’ said Mr Fratton, allowing his perplexity to become a little more evident. ‘Some time last June, wasn’t it?’
‘The twenty-fifth of June,’ Mr Aster agreed.
‘But never before that?’
‘No – nor since.’
Mr Fratton shook his head uncomprehendingly.
After a pause Mr Aster said:
‘You know, there’s something pretty rum about this.’
Mr Fratton nodded, but made no comment. Aster went on:
‘I’d rather like to – well, look here, are you free for dinner tomorrow?’
Mr Fratton was, and when the dinner was finished they retired to a quiet corner of the club lounge with coffee and cigars. After a few moments of consideration Aster said:
‘I must admit I’d feel happier if this Vincell business was a bit clearer. I don’t see – well, there’s something altogether off-beat about it. I might as well tell you the whole thing. Here’s what happened.’
The twenty-fifth of June was a pleasant evening in an unpleasant summer. I was just strolling home enjoying it. In no hurry at all, and just wondering whether I would turn in for a drink somewhere when I saw this old man. He was standing on the pavement in Thanet Street, holding on to the railings with one hand, and looking about him in a dazed, glassy-eyed way.
Well, in our part of London, as you know, there are plenty of strangers from all over the world, particularly in the summer, and quite a few of them look a bit lost. But this old man – well on in the seventies, I judged – was not that sort. Certainly no tourist. In fact, elegant was the word that occurred to me when I saw him. He had a grey, pointed beard, carefully trimmed, a black felt hat meticulously brushed; a dark suit of excellent cloth and cut; his shoes were expensive; so was his discreetly beautiful silk tie. Gentlemen of this type are not altogether unknown to us in our parts, but they are likely to be off their usual beat; and alone, and in a glassy-eyed condition in public, they are quite rare. One or two people walking ahead of me glanced at him briefly, had the reflex thought about his condition, and passed on. I did not; he did not appear to me to be ordinarily fuddled – more, indeed, as if he were frightened … So I paused beside him.
‘Are you unwell?’ I asked him. ‘Would you like me to call a taxi?’
He turned to look at me. His eyes were bewildered, but it was an intelligent face, slightly ascetic, and made to look the thinner by bushy white eyebrows. He seemed to bring me into focus only slowly; his response came more slowly still, and with an effort.
‘No,’ he said, uncertainly, ‘no, thank you. I – I am not unwell.’
It did not appear to be the full truth, but neither was it a definite dismissal, and, ha
ving made the approach, I did not care to leave him like that.
‘You have had a shock,’ I told him.
His eyes were on the traffic in the street. He nodded, but said nothing.
‘There is a hospital just a couple of streets away –’ I began. But he shook his head.
‘No,’ he said again. ‘I shall be all right in a minute or two.’
He still did not tell me to go away, and I had a feeling that he did not want me to. His eyes turned this way and that, and then down at himself. At that, he became quite still and tense, staring down at his clothes with an astonishment that could not be anything but real. He let go of the railings, lifted his arm to look at his sleeve, then he noticed his hand – a shapely, well-kept hand, but thin with age, knuckles withered, blue veins prominent. It wore a gold signet ring on the little finger …
Well, we have all read of eyes bulging, but that is the only time I have seen it happen. They looked ready to pop out, and the extended hand began to shake distressingly. He tried to speak, but nothing came. I began to fear that he might be in for a heart attack.
‘The hospital –’ I began again, but once more he shook his head.
I did not know quite what to do, but I thought he ought to sit down; and brandy often helps, too. He said neither yes nor no to my suggestion, but came with me acquiescently across the street and into the Wilburn Hotel. I steered him to a table in the bar there, and sent for double brandies for both of us. When I turned back from the waiter, the old man was staring across the room with an expression of horror. I looked over there quickly. It was himself he was staring at, in a mirror.
He watched himself intently as he took off his hat and put it down on a chair beside him; then he put up his hand, still trembling, to touch first his beard, and then his handsome silver hair. After that, he sat quite still, staring.
I was relieved when the drinks came. So, evidently, was he. He took just a little soda with his, and then drank the lot. Presently his hand grew steadier, a little colour came into his cheeks, but he continued to stare ahead. Then with a sudden air of resolution he got up.
‘Excuse me a moment,’ he said, politely.
He crossed the room. For fully two minutes he stood studying himself at short range in the glass. Then he turned and came back. Though not assured, he had an air of more decision, and he signed to the waiter, pointing to our glasses. Looking at me curiously, he said as he sat down again:
‘I owe you an apology. You have been extremely kind.’
‘Not at all,’ I assured him. ‘I’m glad to be of any help. Obviously you must have had a nasty shock of some sort.’
‘Er – several shocks,’ he admitted, and added: ‘It is curious how real the figments of a dream can seem when one is taken unaware by them.’
There did not seem to be any useful response to that, so I attempted none.
‘Quite unnerving at first,’ he added, with a kind of forced brightness.
‘What happened?’ I asked, feeling still at sea.
‘My own fault, entirely my own fault – but I was in a hurry,’ he explained. ‘I started to cross the road behind a tram, then I saw the one coming in the opposite direction, almost on top of me. I can only think it must have hit me.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘er – oh, indeed. Er – where did this happen?’
‘Just outside here, in Thanet Street,’ he told me.
‘You – you don’t seem to be hurt,’ I remarked.
‘Not exactly,’ he agreed, doubtfully. ‘No, I don’t seem to be hurt.’
He did not, nor even ruffled. His clothing was, as I have said, immaculate – besides, they tore up the tram rails in Thanet Street about twenty-five years ago. I wondered if I should tell him that, and decided to postpone it. The waiter brought our glasses. The old man felt in his waistcoat pocket, and then looked down in consternation.
‘My sovereign-case! My watch … !’ he exclaimed.
I dealt with the waiter by handing him a one-pound note. The old man watched intently. When the waiter had given me my change and left:
‘If you will excuse me,’ I said, ‘I think this shock must have caused you a lapse of memory. You do – er – you do remember who you are?’
With his finger still in his waistcoat pocket, and a trace of suspicion in his eyes, he looked at me hard.
‘Who I am? Of course I do. I am Andrew Vincell. I live quite close here, in Hart Street.’
I hesitated, then I said:
‘There was a Hart Street near here. But they changed the name – in the thirties I think; before the war, anyway.’
The superficial confidence which he had summoned up deserted him, and he sat quite still for some moments. Then he felt in the inside pocket of his jacket, and pulled out a wallet. It was made of fine leather, had gold corners, and was stamped with the initials A. V. He eyed it curiously as he laid it on the table. Then he opened it. From the left side he pulled a one-pound note, and frowned at it in a puzzled way; then a five-pound note, which seemed to puzzle him still more.
Without comment he felt in the pocket again, and brought out a slender book clearly intended to pair with the wallet. It, too, bore the initials A. V. in the lower right-hand corner, and in the upper it was stamped simply: ‘Diary – 1958.’ He held it in his hand, looking at it for quite some time before he lifted his eyes to mine.
‘Nineteen-fifty-eight?’ he said, unsteadily.
‘Yes,’ I told him.
There was a long pause, then:
‘I don’t understand,’ he said, almost like a child. ‘My life! What has happened to my life?’
His face had a pathetic, crumpled look. I pushed the glass towards him, and he drank a little of the brandy. Opening the diary, he looked at the calendar inside.
‘Oh, God!’ he said. ‘This is too real. What – what has happened to me?’
I said, sympathetically:
‘A partial loss of memory isn’t unusual after a shock, you know – in a little time it comes back quite all right as a rule. I suggest you look in there’ – I pointed to the wallet – ‘very likely there will be something to remind you.’
He hesitated, but then felt in the right-hand side of it. The first thing he pulled out was a colour-print of a snapshot; obviously a family group. The central figure was himself, five or six years younger, in a tweed suit; another man, about forty-five, bore a family resemblance, and there were two slightly younger women, and two girls and two boys in their early teens. In the background part of an eighteenth-century house was visible across a well-kept lawn.
‘I don’t think you need to worry about your life,’ I said. ‘It would appear to have been very satisfactory.’
There followed three engraved cards, separated by tissues, which announced simply: ‘Sir Andrew Vincell’, but gave no address. There was also an envelope addressed to Sir Andrew Vincell, O.B.E., British Vinvinyl Plastics, Ltd, somewhere in London ECI.
He shook his head, took another sip of the brandy, looked at the envelope again, and gave an unamused laugh. Then with a visible effort he took a grip on himself, and said, decisively:
‘This is some silly kind of dream. How does one wake up?’ He closed his eyes, and declared in a firm tone: ‘I am Andrew Vincell. I am aged twenty-three. I live at number forty-eight Hart Street. I am articled to Penberthy and Trull, chartered accountants, of one hundred and two, Bloomsbury Square. This is July the twelfth, nineteen hundred and six. This morning I was struck by a tram in Thanet Street. I must have been knocked silly, and have been suffering from hallucinations. Now!’
He re-opened his eyes, and looked genuinely surprised to find me still there. Then he glared at the envelope, and his expression grew peevish.
‘Sir Andrew Vincell!’ he exclaimed scornfully, ‘and Vinvinyl Plastics, Limited! What the devil is that supposed to mean?’
‘Don’t you think,’ I suggested, ‘that we must assume that you are a member of the firm – I would say, from appearances, one of its directors
‘But I told you –’ He broke off. ‘What is plastics?’ he went on. ‘It doesn’t suggest anything but modelling clay to me. What on earth would I be doing with modelling clay?’
I hesitated. It looked as if the shock, whatever it was, had had the effect of cutting some fifty years out of his memory. Perhaps, I thought, if we were to talk of a matter which was obviously familiar and important to him it might stir his recollection. I tapped the table top.
‘Well, this, for instance, is a plastic,’ I told him.
He examined it, and clicked his finger-nails on it.
‘I’d not call that plastic. It is very hard,’ he observed.
I tried to explain:
‘It was plastic before it hardened. There are lots of different kinds of plastics. This ash-tray, the covering on your chair, this pen, my cheque-book cover, that woman’s raincoat, her handbag, the handle of her umbrella, dozens of things all round you – even my shirt is a woven plastic.’
He did not reply immediately, but sat looking from one to another of these things with growing attention. At last he turned back to me again. This time his eyes gazed into mine with great intensity. His voice shook slightly as he said once more:
‘This really is 1958?’
‘Certainly it is,’ I assured him. ‘If you don’t believe your own diary, there’s a calendar hanging behind the bar.’
‘No horses,’ he murmured to himself, ‘and the trees in the Square grown so tall … a dream is never consistent, not to that extent …’ He paused, then, suddenly: ‘My God!’ he exclaimed, ‘my God, if it really is …’ He turned to me again, with an eager gleam in his eyes. ‘Tell me about these plastics,’ he demanded urgently.
I am no chemist, and I know no more about them than the next man. However, he was obviously keen, and, as I have said, I thought that a familiar subject might help to revive his memory, so I decided to try. I pointed to the ash-tray.
‘Well, this is very likely Bakelite, I think. If so, it is one of the earliest of the thermosetting plastics. A man called Baekeland patented it, about 1909, I fancy. Something to do with phenol and formaldehyde.’
‘Thermosetting? What’s that?’ he inquired.
I did my best with that, and then went on to explain what little I had picked up about molecular chains and arrangements, polymerization and so on, and some of the characteristics and uses. He did not give me any feeling of trying to teach my grandmother, on the contrary, he listened with concentrated attention, occasionally repeating a word now and then as if to fix it in his mind. This hanging upon my words was quite flattering, but I could not delude myself that they were doing anything to revive his memory.
We must – at least, I must – have talked for nearly an hour, and all the time he sat earnest and tense, with his hands clenched tightly together. Then I noticed that the effect of the brandy had worn off, and he was again looking far from well.
‘I really think I had better see you home,’ I told him. ‘Can you remember where you live?’
‘Forty-eight Hart Street,’ he said.
‘No. I mean where you live now,’ I insisted.
But he was not really listening. His face still had the expression of great concentration.
‘If only I can remember – if only I can remember when I wake up,’ he murmured desperately, to himself rather than to me. Then he turned to look at me again.
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
I told him.
‘I’ll remember that, too, if I can,’ he assured me, very seriously.
I leaned over and lifted the cover of the diary. His name was on the fly-leaf, with an address in Upper Grosvenor Street. I folded the wallet and the diary together, and put them into his hand. He stowed them away in his pocket automatically, and then sat gazing with complete detachment while the porter got us a taxi.
An elderly woman, a housekeeper, I imagine, opened the door of an impressive flat. I suggested that she should ring up Sir Andrew’s doctor, and stayed long enough to explain the situation to him when he arrived.
The following evening I rang up to inquire how he was. A younger woman’s voice answered. She told me that he had slept well after a sedative, woken somewhat tired, but quite himself, with no sign of any lapse of memory. The doctor saw no cause for alarm. She thanked me for taking care of him, and bringing him home, and that was that.
In fact, I had practically forgotten the whole incident until I saw the announcement of his death in the paper, in December.
Mr Fratton made no comment for some moments, then he drew at his cigar, sipped some coffee, and said, not very constructively:
‘So I thought – think,’ said Mr Aster.
‘I mean,’ went on Mr Fratton, ‘I mean, you certainly did him a kindly service, but scarcely, if you will forgive me, a service that one would expect to find valued at six thousand one-pound shares – standing at eighty-three and sixpence, too.’
‘Quite,’ agreed Mr Aster.
‘Odder still,’ Mr Fratton went on, ‘this meeting occurred last summer. But the will containing the bequest was drawn up and signed seven years ago.’ He again drew thoughtfully on his cigar. ‘And I cannot see that I am breaking any confidence if I tell you that it superseded an earlier will drawn up twelve years before, and in that will also, the same clause occurred.’ He meditated upon his companion.
‘I have given it up,’ said Mr Aster, ‘but if you are collecting oddities, you might perhaps like to make a note of this one.’ He produced a pocket-book, and took from it a cutting. The strip of paper was headed: ‘Obituary. Sir Andrew Vincell – A Pioneer in Plastics.’ Mr Aster located a passage halfway down the column, and read out:
‘ “It is curious to note that in his youth Sir Andrew foreshadowed none of his later interests, and was indeed articled at one time to a firm of chartered accountants. At the age of twenty-three, however, in the summer of 1906, he abruptly and quite unexpectedly broke his articles, and began to devote himself to chemistry. Within a few years he had made the first of the important discoveries upon which his great company was subsequently built.” ’
‘H’m,’ said Mr Fratton. He looked carefully at Mr Aster. ‘He was knocked down by a tram in Thanet Street, in 1906 you know.’
‘Of course. He told me so,’ said Mr Aster.
Mr Fratton shook his head.
‘It’s all very queer,’ he observed.
‘Very odd indeed,’ agreed Mr Aster.