CSULA Department of English | Statement 2005

The Man of Instructions

 

by Jasper Cross

“We shall write this story in three parts.”

Mr. Thomas is our new English teacher in this Third Year at the Upper School.

“Remember, last term? We talked about having a Beginning, a Middle and an End?”

In the third form, we write again — not often, because we have Golding, and Chaucer and Shakespeare to learn.

“You got into groups of three and came up with a story. Each of you wrote either the Beginning, the Middle, or the End.”

I wrote the End. I was just thirteen. We called our story When the Snow Clears. I was the one who made it up. It was about a Detective who coincided with a coach trip.

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A freak snowstorm catches the coach in Scotland and the bus balks at the rise of a hill. The Driver, fat and mustachioed, orders the passengers out into the blizzard to lessen their vehicle’s load, but still the bus slips and will not move. The engine dies.

Wrapped in a RAF blue overcoat, knitted burgundy scarf and the Company’s peaked cap, the driver enters the cold. He unlocks the baggage doors and passes out the suitcases and holdalls to the waiting tourists. No, no, he insists, we can’t stay here! Bloody freeze, we will. There’s a hotel not far away. Bit posh, but I expect you’ll like that. They set off across a snow-covered golf course and are joined on the way by a thin figure who stumbles out of the wind and snow, waving his free arm wildly as he struggles to balance himself.

It is the Detective who greets the Driver with: My car broke down a way back. I saw you all set out from the road. Are you headed for St Tugual’s Hotel? The manager there’s a friend of mine. I’ll come with you, if you like. To which the Driver replies: You do what you like, mate. I’m buggering off out of this right now. And he sets off, toppling into a snow-filled bunker. The Detective watches the fifteen patient passengers dig up their Driver and set him on his feet. The Detective recognizes amongst them the jabbing finger and sweeping arms of one who is a Man of Instructions.

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“Now we did talk about planning, didn’t we, Class,” says Mr. Bartholomew, two years ago. “And I know I mentioned plot. So, take this lesson and write the Plan of a Plot for a Story you might have written. Then show it to me and I will tell you what I think.”

Mr. Bartholomew taught me English for the first year at the Upper School. I did not write much during that time, but parsed sentences and answered comprehension questions. Mr. Bartholomew did ask us to write a poem – we had been learning about rhythm and rhyme. We broke poetry into feet, and marked the stresses.

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Upright and able once more, the Driver takes his bearings by gust of wind and swirl of snow and leads his coach load to the brink of the ocean. It is the Detective who points out the stones, hidden under drifts, that mark the ornamental drive from seashore to French windows and, in the warmth of Reception, it is the Detective who negotiates the party’s lodgings with his friend, the Manager.

In a parlor, fourteen passengers pull their chairs in round the Driver, who leans towards the fire from the red leather of his armchair. He steams from coat, cap and a cup of hot whiskey procured, apparently, from the shadows of the air. The Man of Instructions sits aside from the group, under the head of a stag — he picks his teeth with the overlong nail of the forefinger of his right hand.

The Driver speaks to the fire and tells it, as the Fourteen listen, that there are worse things to be than the butt of a joke.

What do you mean? asks a Young Woman, forgetting herself in her curiosity and relinquishing her husband’s hand.

I know how these things end, is all the Driver says.

What things? asks the Young Woman, leaning towards the left wing of the Driver’s armchair. Do you mean Fourteen Travelers, a Man of Instructions, their Driver and a Detective, Stranded by Snow in a Coastal Hotel?

But the Driver shakes his head and whispers through whiskey-soaked whiskers: What I mean is…

Don’t bother with him, says the Man of Instructions. He can’t even decide what year this is.

By night, the murderer uses a golf club to break open his victim’s head and, not liking what he finds within, he pokes around until, at last, he admits to himself that all he will ever find is a mess of blood and tangled nerves.

When the Manager finds the body, he screams shrilly and passes out. He regains consciousness, lying in his wife’s arms on an ornate ottoman in the foyer. She wipes his brow with a cool flannel and explains that the phone lines are down and that neither doctor nor policeman may be summoned by natural means. Her breath smells of stomach acid. The Manager recalls cracked bone and broken skin. My friend, the Detective! he says.

He is fine, says his wife with a sigh.

I know that, says the Manager, I wasn’t — no — but he can help us now. He is, after all, a detective. The Manager’s Wife sends one of the waiting staff to find the Detective and orders the remainder to bring rosehip tea for her husband and coffee for everyone else.

When they are alone, she turns to the Manager, her husband. Dear, she says, why were you visiting the Man of Instructions so early in the day? Her Husband, the manager, demurs. You know we must leave the guests alone, continues his wife, as if no one has spoken. It isn’t for us to interfere. Again, she asks: Why did you go to the room of the Man of Instructions so early in the day? The Manager, her husband, replies: He told me to be there at that time. He jabbed his finger and swept his arms, so where else would I be, but there?

There is always a choice, says his wife. We don’t have to do everything they say.

Dupe, he whispers, as she rises from the ottoman, letting his head fall onto the steel-sprung seat.

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“That is really only two parts,” says Mr. Melchior, our second year teacher, as I stand at his desk. “I was sure your plan had an end when I looked it over, but you seem to have lost it on the way. The best plans always come in three parts — Mr. Bartholomew must have told you — but maybe I should leave all this to Mr. Thomas.”

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The Detective appears and listens as the Manager, his friend, begs him to investigate the murder — such a madman puts us all in danger. Reluctantly, protesting that he has retired, that he is on holiday, that he has no powder to dust with, no sergeant to take notes, no notebook to write in and no pen to write with, the Detective consents to examine the facts. He decides on a series of interviews and begins with his Friend, the manager, asking: My Friend, why were you visiting this Man of Instructions so early in the day? Is it usual for a Manager, Friend and Husband to call on guests before light?

The Manager dabs at his lips with a silk handkerchief and his eyes flicker briefly towards the Detective.

He told me to be there, he says, turning his empty palms to the ceiling. What else could I do?

Are you sure it was the Man of Instructions who told you?

He appeared to be himself — his finger jabbed and the sweep of his arms was precisely similar.

The Detective speaks to the Manager’s wife and she tells how she heard the piercing scream and heavy thud as her husband fell to the floor of the Man of Instructions’ room. She skates over her emesis, but conjures the mixture of blood, brains and bone that she found above the neck and behind the broken face of the Man of Instructions.

For a moment, the Detective is tempted to interview the Fourteen Other Travelers as if they were one entity, but he contents himself with serial encounters in which he uses exactly the same questions and intonation. Somewhere amongst them, he reminds himself, are a Young Woman and her Husband, though which they are is now beyond anyone’s recall.

I know how these things end, says the Driver, when he takes his turn. It’s always the same.

What is always the same? asks the Detective.

You know.

They have turned the heating off in the Man of Instructions’ room and the windows stand open to let the snow and the cold in. The Manager believes that this will preserve the body until the authorities can examine it to determine the cause of death. The Detective sighs and shuts his eyes, but does not argue. He helps himself to some of the Driver’s spectral whiskey and pulls another red leather armchair up to the fire while he considers stories and evidence.

The people of the hotel wait for the snow to clear. They keep each other always in sight — the Fourteen, the Manager, his wife, shadows of the waiting staff — all except the Driver and the Detective, who stare into the flames.

So who is the murderer? asks the Manager at last.

We cannot possibly say, says the Detective.

But we know how these things end, says the Driver.

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Why did you do it?

Because he killed my wife.

How did he do it?

By running her down with a yellow Triumph Dolomite.

Why did he do it?

It was an accident.

Why did he do it?

Because she would not take his instructions.

Why did he do it?

Because that is how these endings begin, says the Detective.

But why did you have to kill him?

Because I know how these things end, says the Detective. And so does the Driver.

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The snow cleared. Doctors came and pronounced the Man of Instructions dead of a broken head. The police took statements and a great interest in the interview technique of the Detective. The party dispersed, knowing they might be summoned at any time.

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From his top floor flat the Detective can see the Man of Instructions standing on the roof space below his window. The Man of Instructions does not jab his finger and neither does he sweep his arms. He is mute and his mouth will not open. The Detective closes the curtains.

In the sitting-room of his top floor flat, the Detective is aware of the cavity behind the face of the Man of Instructions. He remembers scooping it out with a golfing iron. He does not mind the memory so much as the presence of the Man of Instructions in front of the television — hands still, arms pressed to his side, he is quite mute. The Detective turns off the television set.

The Detective decides to go to bed. He takes off his blazer, his brown brogues, his grey flannel trousers, his black socks, whitened by foot powder, his shirt with the buttoned-down collar and thread-thin, gold-flecked, red and blue stripes. He removes his navy blue boxer shorts. He puts on his blue and white pajama bottoms and ties the cord securely in a double knot. In the bathroom, he stands naked from the waist up before the mirror and stares hard into the eyes of his reflection. He finds no mechanism, no motivation, and so he proceeds with brushing his teeth using the red toothbrush reserved for the evenings.

On the floor of the Detective’s bedroom lies the Man of Instructions.

He lies there as if this were his own room, says the Detective out loud. Will his blood leave a stain? he wonders. Can this blood stain? He sits on the edge of his bed and notices the face of the Man of Instructions lying like an upturned bowl under his bedside table. There are sirens in the night.

He unties the knot of his blue and white pajama bottoms and slips into a pair of red boxers, over which he pulls some dark jeans. On his torso he wears a black woolen polo neck sweater and on his feet a fresh pair of black socks and some dark blue trainers. He leaves his head bare, but stoops to pick up the face of the Man of Instructions. As the police cars draw up to his block, he slips out of the window and onto the flat roof, clutching the face to his chest.

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“But that is no ending,” says Mr. Thomas, last term. “What happens to the Detective? Where does he go? Do the police find him? I want to know how it ends.”

It ends as it always ends, says the Detective. I die.

He has hung the face of the Man of Instructions about his neck like a medallion. The Man of Instructions is still mute, but his eyes follow everything.

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First there is the chase by night and the Detective finds paths on the edges of pitched roofs, narrow spaces only two feet wide and four stories of space to fall through. He climbs fire escapes and leaps from gable-end to roof garden, to fields of solar panels, and he waves his free arm as he struggles to balance himself. Behind him the dark figures of policemen swarm over tile, glass and felt.

The Detective is not surprised that no road crosses the line of buildings he has chosen for his escape. Houses, offices, shops, chapels, a Grammar School, an Opticians’, a Dentists’, a Private I., the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Samaritans, a Church of the Risen Lord, a Purveyor of Memorial Masonry, the home of a weeping woman and a watching man, a flat of lovers sustain him on his way. The flight of cats and the indulgence of dogs dissolve all hindrance, but still he is pursued — and by now everyone knows how this ends.

The path over the roofs ends outside of Town, by the quarry. The Detective catches his breath before setting off across the dry grass at the pit’s edge. He stumbles and when he stands, he sees the lamps of the police closing in around him.

The Detective watches for a moment, then turns to the quarry and leaps.

He spreads out his arms and embraces the air.

The face of the Man of Instructions opens its mouth and roars out the terror of falling.

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“Yes, that was it,” says Mr. Thomas, “but some might call that four parts, not three. And I was never quite sure what the point of his free arm was. I suppose he was always carrying something in the other — a bag, or a face — though that was round his neck during the chase — then again, I suppose he would have needed to steady it — it can’t have been that strong — bone and cartilage held together by skin — does that ever really happen? I wonder how he managed to hide it from the police when they came to the hotel?”

I watch the slow swing of the strip lights hanging by chains from the high ceiling of Mr. Thomas’s classroom.