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Heartbeat (Part One) by James Ryder


Heartbeat (Part One)

Copyright © James Ryder 2017


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without their permission of the author.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.



Also by James Ryder

Dream Lover

Carver’s Cove

Hard Feelings

Merrywood Hall

Stallion

Before the sun goes down (short story)



For those fighting the good fight



To get a FREE copy of my novel MERRYWOOD HALL and further info about upcoming publications, click here and sign up for the James Ryder Reader Group

PART ONE



Christopher



I jumped off the tram before it came to complete stop because I was already late and I didn’t have a moment to spare. Punctuality is not one of my strong points. Today, however, I did not want to be late, for I was due at the Werner Verlag at midday for a meeting with the proprietor of the famous publishing house. The Germans, as Heinrich once told me, appreciate punctuality, and are inclined to think anyone who finds being on time difficult is probably not a serious person. I turned off the Unter den Linden and down one of the side streets that branched off that main thoroughfare. I was wearing the only good suit I owned, the double–breasted one that is two years old now and a little threadbare in places. Still, it’s English, like me, and well cut. And I’m told I look handsome in it. Although I’m not tall as I would like to be, I’m lean and strong, and I’m considered vaguely handsome – I have inherited the pronounced, prominent features prevalent in the Townsend family, even though our thin lips perhaps lend themselves to an appearance of pride, to my mind this feature is mitigated in me by my clear, bright brown eyes. A physical resemblance is the only thing I share with my family, though. Quite where my flair for writing and my acerbic humour comes from my family has never been able to determine. Werner’s publishing house was located in the middle of the street, in an imposing, pale grey coloured mansion once owned by a nobleman in the days of the monarchy and now home to the business of books. It was a somewhat austere but not unattractive building – the walls of the edifice were rendered slightly less formidable by the sunlight falling on it, giving it soft pink hue. There was a grand entrance beneath the portico. Inside the central hall, which was floored in marble, and an attractive secretary sat behind the desk next to the sweeping staircase. She directed me up the stairs to the first floor. Just off the wide landing, I found myself in a large, oak panelled room which was surely some German duke’s bedroom years ago, I supposed. Here I was confronted by yet another secretary. This one was less attractive than the first and more highly prized because of it, for she seemed quite intimidating and I could tell that she was excellent at a job. She offered me a seat and I sat down in a comfortable armchair next to the bookshelves which went all the way up to the ceiling and were filled with Werner’s publications. A select few of the firm’s most successful books was also on display on the coffee table in front of me. Although Werner’s specialised in historical books, political tracts, and biographies, they had also carved out a niche in publishing the very best fiction. Nervously, I picked up a volume about Kaiser Wilhelm and leafed through it. From this cursory glance I got the impression that the company had a decidedly liberal attitude to the past, and the current penchant for reclaiming Germany’s Empire had not yet reached Werner’s. The company was an old one and well established, and from what I could learn from Heinrich, had been run by the same family for more than a century now. The current head of the company, Harold Werner, was well known in Germany. He mixed in high society circles, had married a beautiful Countess at the turn–of–the–century, and tragically lost her to suicide in the early 1920s. Heinrich told me that at the time it had been something of a scandal, for Harold’s wife had supposedly been conducting an affair with a young musician at the time, although there was no evidence of their liaison. Harold had remained a widow for many years, but had taken several lovers in that time, most of whom were beautiful women – one was a French courtesan and another was an Italian film actress. I was pondering the fascinating life Harold Werner had quite obviously led over the past decade or so, when a telephone on the desk of the prim secretary pierced the silence with its shrill ring and made me jump. She answered it and, with the authorial tones that justified her position as gatekeeper to Harold Werner, she promptly informed the caller that her boss was unavailable to speak on the telephone at present, and that, yes, she would let him know that he had received a telephone call. She replaced the receiver again and resumed opening several envelopes with a sharp, silver letter opener. Then a buzzer sounded briefly. The secretary looked up at me and told me that I could go through into the adjoining office, and she gestured toward the door. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was that the man sitting behind the desk was not Harold Werner at all. Heinrich had told me that Werner was a man of about sixty, a well groomed playboy type with greying hair at his temples and a deep tan. This man was different. In fact, he didn’t look to be terribly much older than me, certainly no more than thirty. Moreover, I was struck by just how handsome he was – so handsome that I was momentarily thrown by his dazzling hazel coloured eyes, his strong square jaw, and the effortlessly casual confidence with which he held himself and walked across the room to greet me. He was square shouldered too and wore an impeccably tailored suit. For some reason the thought that he was probably an excellent swimmer went through my mind. In the face of my dumbstruck silence, the man quickly extended his hand and welcomed me, and then he guided me over to two comfortable winged, leather armchairs placed on either side of the lighted fire. “As it’s such a cold day I thought you might like to warm up,” he said. Rather than thank him for this consideration, I blurted out, “I thought I was meeting Herr Werner…” and he explained to me that there had been a change of plan. Apparently Herr Werner had been delayed in Switzerland longer than he had anticipated. Business had taken him there. Werner had deputised Max Ollendorf to take the meeting with me. As politely as I could, I asked Herr Ollendorf what he did at the firm and he explained that for two years now he had been head of acquisitions, which meant that it was his job to take on new authors and publish their books. He also explained that he had a particular interest in non–fiction works, primarily of a political nature…not fiction. My heart sank a little as I quickly presumed that Mr Ollendorf was probably not the sort of person who would appreciate my novel. There was something quite Philistine about him, I thought. He reminded me of some of the young men who used to come to the hunt balls back at home – sporty, indifferent – who were proud of the fact they had never picked up a book in their lives. At least, they had never picked up a novel, let alone a novel of the kind I had written. Herr Ollendorf’s penchant for biographies and academic tracts, although commendable, obviously stemmed from an interest in politics rather than literature. I supposed he was a man of business rather than an artist at heart, the sort of person who preferred to pour over income sheets rather than literary tomes. Did he sense my growing disappointment? Sitting across from him, I got the impression that he was trying to let me down gently when he said, “I was most grateful to you for letting me have a look at your novel, Mr Townsend. I can appreciate how difficult it is to submit your work for publication and, by extension, for judgement…” I could tell from this preamble that Werner’s were declining to publish my book. Ollendorf went on to explain that the company was not considering such “controversial” material at present. What he really meant was morally unacceptable. “Werner’s is at heart a conservative organisation, I’m sure you understand,” he added. I thought this a curious statement. Based on their previously published work Werner’s had a liberal reputation. I supposed times had changed. From what I’d seen of the employees in the short time that I had been in the building, I could tell that this was a publishing house that was essentially conservative. They were more suited to acquiring conventional novels, romances devoured by the masses rather than really challenging books. Moreover, while Ollendorf was perfectly polite to me, I was convinced that behind his civil rejection he deplored the type of novel I had submitted for consideration. Heinrich had warned me, of course. When I had finished the second draft of my novel I had given it to him to read. Heinrich had done so and told me that although he believed the book had some literary merit and that the pacing was brisk, he told me that the subject matter was probably “unpublishable”. “I’m not entirely sure there is a market for this kind of book,” Heinrich had said. He had nonetheless encouraged me to submit it to publishers. Werner’s was the fourth to have turned it down. A couple of the publishers to whom I’d submitted the book had simply rejected it by letter without offering any opinions on it at all. I had been encouraged by Werner’s invitation to come to their offices and meet with them. Yet another secretary entered carrying a tray with a coffee pot and cups. As she deposited the tray on the table, Ollendorf said, “Tell me, what inspired you to write this novel?” he asked. For all my bravado, I hadn’t expected to be asked such a direct question. “Is it based on your own life?” he added. Holding my head up, I told him that part of it had been inspired by my first few months of living in Germany, but that much of it had simply been a product of my own febrile imagination. “When I first came here I did work for a wealthy family as a sort of tutor to their younger children, like the main character in the novel, and they did have a very beautiful older brother who came to spend the summer at their home…” I decided not to tell him all the particulars of what had happened that summer in which I had been employed by that aristocratic family. I would have liked to have seen the look on his face if I had told him of how Wilhelm and I had conducted a secret affair, but I decided against it because I didn’t want to give Ollendorf the satisfaction of looking at me with contempt or disdain. However, I kept my most defiant expression in readiness on the off chance that he might do so anyway. But he didn’t. He picked up the manuscript which was sitting on the top of a pile of other manuscripts and leafed through it. “I must say that I thought your novel was very emotional – that’s why I wondered if it had been based on real–life events. Your writing can be somewhat verbose at times, of course, but that can be attributed to the fact that this is your first novel. It is your first novel, correct?” I didn’t like to tell him that actually I had written three other novels back in England, so I simply nodded. He proceeded to give me more advice on how I might rewrite the book. “It would probably benefit from a good edit,” he said. “That goes for all books, I should say. One must go through it and cross out all those extraneous words and over sentimentalised sentences which can sometimes slow down the story. To my mind writers should simply state the facts and let the reader do the rest.” I briefly wondered how many novels Ollendorf had written and supposed that the answer was none. Publishers aren’t writers. Still, this fact has never prevented publishers from offering extensive commentary on how a writer should go about composing a book. I could do nothing but accept his literary advice with a smile. What else did Ollendorf and I discussed that day? It’s difficult to remember all the particulars – I was probably too stung by his rejection to remember everything clearly, although I do recall that we discussed the recently published collection of Kaiserin Friedrich’s letters, who had been a daughter of Queen Victoria. I had read it recently and liked it, but I had found the translations from English to German and German to English to not be as good as they might have been. I told Ollendorf this – perhaps a little too sharply – and he momentarily lost his polite composure and looked a little offended. “I suppose these things can be a matter of interpretation,” he said. “We always endeavour to get the very best translations we can…” I knew I was speaking defensively because my German was not anywhere near perfect, was indeed little more than passable at the best of times though I could read it quite well. Still I was confident in my assessment. “If I were you,” I told him, “I would dispense with your translator immediately and hire someone much better suited to the role.” Again, Ollendorf balked slightly. I think he was about to launch into a defence of the book, and of the translator, when he was interrupted by the telephone ringing on his desk. He got up from his seat and strode purposefully across the room and picked up the receiver. Speaking to whoever it was on the other end of the line in a low tone – it was difficult to hear him – I got the impression that he was talking with someone about an important private matter. When the conversation was over he hung up and came back over to the fireplace. Rather than resume his seat, Ollendorf stood in front of the lighted fire, and stared thoughtfully into it. It was almost as if I wasn’t there at all. After what seemed like an eternity, Ollendorf remembered my existence and turned to me. “I’m so sorry to have been the bearer of bad tidings,” he said, eager to wrap up our meeting. “But I have always felt that it’s important to speak to people, even if you have bad news for them. You are a good writer, Mr Townsend, and I hope that you will not be too discouraged by the fact that I am declining to publish your manuscript.” Maybe it was arrogant of me to think that he had some nerve to presume that his rejection would make any further attempt at writing a novel impossible for me, but that’s exactly what I thought and I resented his conceit. It was time for me to go, I realised. I stood up and shook Ollendorf’s hand, eager to show him that I was largely indifferent to his rejection of my novel. And when he showed me to the door, I made a point of smiling at him as if he meant nothing to me at all.



Berlin in the January of 1936 was a strange place – gripped by a cold winter that seemed to coat the entire city in an icy, stinging frost. But the chilling effect that fell over the German capital was not only physical in nature. It had affected the people as well. Since Hitler had come to power in 1933, the gradual repression of German life, so liberal and free during the previous decade, albeit accompanied by economic instability, had comprehensively taken hold. The Chancellor had begun restricting the movements and rights of the Jewish people, jobs had become almost the exclusive preserve of the Aryans, and a general atmosphere of mistrust pervaded everything. Curiously, it almost became like a backdrop which people stopped noticing. As I walked away from the Werner building that day, I don’t imagine anybody paid much attention to the innumerable red flags draped from all the buildings along the Unter den Linden, each one emblazoned with the swastika. In the shop windows you would always find pictures of Hitler in the front window, and when people walked past him they always raised their arms to salute him. I jumped onto a tram that took me to the nearest station, and there I boarded a train to the Nollendorf area of Berlin. The journey wasn’t terribly long, but I found myself staring out of the train window at the buildings contemplatively, wondering if I would ever get a book published. It’s dreadful now to think that my thoughts were so given over to such trivial matters, but that is the strangest thing about living in a dictatorship – as much as you despise the government in power, your thoughts inevitably end up turning back to yourself and your own private hopes and desires. At that time I still thought that living in Germany was preferable to going back home, even if in moments of despondency I was sometimes trapped between living in the unhappiness of the past and the difficulties of the present. Occasionally I thought of home with a sense of...what was it? – Nostalgia? Perhaps I had developed a sense of wistfulness about the old place, against my better judgement if not my will, for there was something to be said for missing a place, even if you don’t actually like being there. And I didn’t like being at the Fossett Hall. I had to remember that. The place was falling apart, I had to continually remind myself, and even if I had wanted to restore it to its former glory, such as that glory was, it would take more than a small fortune to do it justice. And what would I be restoring anyway? A Jacobean house in deepest Wiltshire of little architectural merit, which had incubated a family of Philistines from the minor English gentry who had contributed nothing to the world beyond several colonial officials who had gone out to India and worked in some provincial backwater and there died of malaria. There had been, I suppose, a few of us Townsends who had distinguished themselves in the 18th century by cultivating a painter who’d provided the family with several portraits of ancestors which now hung in the Great Hall, and who had gone on to paint various important individuals and members of the royal family, but that patronage had probably not been a direct result of recognising the artistic merits of the painter, but more as a consequence of economy since my family has always had the ability to recognise a bargain when they see one. They had managed, I think, to combine their narcissistic need to preserve themselves in oils, thereby satisfying their innate arrogance and belief that their name was significant, with the monetary limitations on their ability to do so, by hiring a young artist who would give them what they wanted without having to pay too much to do it. There is a tale in the family, often retold with a perverse sense of glee that, after taking receipt of the portraits of Sir John and Lady Townsend, the bill for the paintings was questioned, court action was threatened, and it ultimately remained unpaid. It always appalled me that my family took this a triumph of their canniness rather than the extortion of the artist. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was true. Some of my ancestors have acquired disreputable reputations over the years. Although, it would be unkind of me to say that none of them had any redeeming qualities, for they of course did. I suppose the chief among these is the unwavering dedication they have always had for the land they have farmed for centuries, and in consequence, the people and families they have employed on the estate to help them bring in the harvests. While I might castigate my own family for their lack of artistic feeling and dedication to the more prosaic pursuits of hunting and fishing, the farmers and tenant at Fossett Hall will defend my family with every breath in their body. This was especially true of my grandfather, Hector Townsend, that great bear of a man who stood at six foot five and sported a bushy white head of hair and a wiry white beard which he refused to have trimmed. When I close my eyes I can still see him mounting his favourite chestnut–coloured bay and trotting around the estate to visit his tenants, whom he thought of as friends, or sneaking off to the pub in the village for a stolen pint of ale with some of the farm workers, much against the wishes of Aunt Louise, who was too grand for her own good and was always destined to be an old maid because she had too high an opinion of herself and thought all men were tigers. Still, I suppose it was Aunt Louise who kept the house going after my father had died in the Great War, a death which so felled my grandfather that he died two months after getting the official letter from the War Office informing him that his beloved son and heir had been taken from him. My mother, beset with grief, had proven incapable of running the house with the devastating onset of widowhood. She had retreated to her room and not come out again for almost a year, leaving Aunt Louise to become the man of house, a job which she would have been most eminently suited for were it not for the unfortunate mistake of having been born a female. Rising to the challenge, Aunt Louise had managed to inspire the old servants who much preferred to work for a tyrant, and frightened the poor maids who didn’t. She also insisted that my brother and I, despite having just lost our father, be sent away to the same brutal boarding school that our father had attended and loathed – indeed he had vowed that he would never send any of his children there – but was deemed eminently suitable for us by Aunt Louise, ostensibly because it was the only institution that could be afforded since it had offered the children of former pupils who’d perished in the war much reduced fees. “You’ll not get a better education,” Aunt Louise berated us when we objected to being sent there. “This family hasn’t a penny to its name any more. You should be grateful they’re willing to take you both.” And so my younger brother, Richard, and I went to that dreadful school and I loathed every minute of it. Returning home whenever the academic year allowed, I found my mother increasingly changed. Where once she had been gay and pretty, I now found that her bright personality, the very eagerness to live and enjoy life, characteristics to which my father had been so attracted, had gradually been eroded, either by grief or by Aunt Louise’s continued criticism. I knew Aunt Louise had always found Mamma’s ephemeral beauty to be something of a liability when it came to being an efficient housekeeper, but as the 1920s wore on, I came to believe that Aunt Louise was actually jealous of my mother, envious of the fact that she had managed to attract a husband, her brother, without seemingly having to do anything at all. It had just happened. Moreover, my mother had come to Fossett Hall and instantly won the respect and admiration of the staff through her effortless, if slightly vague, dignity. But these qualities, although undoubtedly attractive, at least to my father, were not ones which endeared people to you in the long term, I realised. In fact, they were bound to ultimately engender bitterness in others, for there is nothing worse than seeing a forty years old girl, meandering through the long grasses on the estate, picking wildflowers from the meadows, and aimlessly playing the piano in the Great Hall, when the roof in the dining room is leaking. Perhaps my mother did not notice that the house was practically falling down around her, or perhaps she did notice it and chose to ignore it and leave these problems in the capable hands of her sister–in–law since she was much more capable of solving them. Whatever the reason, the upshot of it was that while Aunt Louise did all the work, ruthlessly economised on the already meagre household expenditure, and even dealt with the tenant farmers who were not able to meet their rents in any given year, she nonetheless kept Fossett Hall going. But it was my mother who got the credit for it. Because she had so little else to occupy her time, my mother increasingly channelled all her energies into me. She wanted to turn me into my father, the husband she had loved and lost. She wanted to fashion me into the ideal, Edwardian gentleman he had been – the admired heir to the estate who loved nothing better than hunting and shooting and fishing, a pleasant fellow who could talk with the farmers and tenants with ease, the man who was expected to be elected to the Houses of Parliament, become a respected MP, and one day even be ennobled. That was the ultimate dream the mother had, I think. Unfortunately, every ambition my mother had for me, and against which my attributes and deficiencies were constantly measured, I invariably failed to meet. I was not the sort of young squire who chatted easily with tenant farmers, I was not the popular scion of a gentry family who could be relied upon to attend all those hunt balls and dutifully take the frumpy daughters of the local squires around the dance floor. If anything, I was the polar opposite to what my mother wanted me to be – I was essentially a rather disagreeable bohemian, an introverted, yet inexplicably conceited young man who despised the world into which he been born. What I really wanted was to get away from Fossett Hall, away from my family, and if possible away from England. I wanted to go to a place where I could make my own way, travel my own path, and yes, seduce as many beautiful men as possible. There hadn’t exactly been much opportunity for that in the sleepy part of the world where I was from. Other than sneaking furtive glances at some of the farmhands pulling off their shirts at the height of summer when they brought in the hay, I don’t think I had ever had any outlet for my sensual desires. At Oxford I had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the young men who was a year older than me, but that had not gone much beyond a fumbled kiss one evening after we’d been drinking in the local public house and stumbled back to my rooms at two o’clock in the morning. It was only when I returned to Fossett Hall after completing my degree that I decided to leave again because I would only end up frustrated if I remained. I wanted to get out before all the responsibilities of life on the estate eventually fell on me. So, while I was sitting in the garden with my mother and Aunt Louise one afternoon – my mother was reclining in a wicker chair with her eyes closed and almost half asleep, while my Aunt Louise was busily repairing the embroidery on one of the cushions from the drawing room – I informed them both that I intended to do some travelling. “Travelling?” Aunt Louise asked, immediately sceptical. “Travelling where?” I told them that I planned to go to Germany, to Berlin. Anticipating that I would immediately be subjected to a lot of questions about how exactly I planned to do this, and on what money I expect to live, I quickly combated my aunt’s objections by saying, “I’ve already set the wheels in motion as a matter of fact. A friend of mine from Oxford has agreed to write me a letter of recommendation to some of the best families in Berlin,” (He hadn’t) “I intend to work as a tutor to the young children of a Baron and Baroness.” In fact, none of these arrangements had been completely settled at that point – I had exchanged a few letters with the baroness in particular, but she was such a fey creature that she had not been able to confirm that she would employ me – but I nonetheless told my mother and aunt that everything had been organised. My fortifications needed to be impenetrable. Aunt Louise didn’t say anything that afternoon about my leaving, she was much too clever. Instead of instigating some dreadful quarrel between she and I in which my mother would inevitably be forced to take sides, she adopted the tactic of subtly dropping endless hints about how much my presence was required at Fossett Hall. She didn’t criticise my decision to leave, you see, but rather she told me that my talents would be well–suited to improving the estate. “You know, you can talk to the tenants just like your father did,” Aunt Louise told me one day after one of the farmers’ sons had delivered a brace of pheasant. “It’s a real gift to have, Christopher.” I certainly saw through her subtle campaign, but I don’t think my mother did. My mother wept pitiably at the prospect of my leaving, spent many hours trying to convince me to stay, and when finally she realised that I would not be dissuaded from leaving she caustically washed her hands of me and told me that I was letting her down. In a way I think I was grateful for the manner in which she ‘washed her hands of me’, because it meant that I could leave Fossett Hall without being inundated with too much guilt. And that’s precisely what I did. When the summer came to an end I said goodbye to my mother and aunt at the local train station, travelled to the south coast, sailed to France, and caught a train to Berlin.


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