Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A Mouse or a Moth

A golem is a monstrous creature of Jewish legend created out of clay and animated by the use of magic. The best known story involves the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel who is reputed to have created a golem around 1580 in order to protect the Prague ghetto from an anti-semitic pogrom. This and other stories are the basis of three famous silent movies made between 1914 and 1920 by actor/director Paul Wegener, classics of German Expressionist cinema, which were to have an enormous influence on Hollywood horror films of the future. Of the three movies only the last The Golem – How He Came into the World exists in complete form, the second The Golem and the Dancing Girl has vanished entirely and there are only fragments of the first, which is simply entitled The Golem. Why am I telling you all this? I am sure that few of my readers have any particular interest in German silent movies. The reason is that these movies are at the core of the story that I am about to tell, but it is not my story it is the story of Mike Danfers.

I met Mike during my first, and as it happens my only year at university. He was in his second year and had the rooms across the landing from mine. I can’t remember what he was reading but he was a much more serious minded individual than I and we had little in common apart from an obsession with cinema. This he approached with great intellectual rigour writing impenetrable essays on obscure Balkan art movies for academic film magazines, attending seminars on ‘Symbolism in Early Argentine Gaucho Films’ and suchlike while I queued in the rain for late night ‘splatter’ movies. He had a pretty girlfriend called Liz, who was up at Newnham, and would gamely clamber over the walls of our college late at night in order to share his bed, but when she had an essay to write and stayed away Mike would pop across the landing to share a bedtime joint with me. We lost touch for a few years after my departure from the university but when I finally stumbled into a theatrical career we started to come across each other in the West End where he spent a lot of time in research at the British Film Institute which in those days was based in Soho. We would meet for coffee or an early evening beer, sometimes if I wasn’t busy he would invite me to join him in one of the BFI’s tiny preview theatres to watch whatever neglected classic it was that he was researching that week.

Some years ago, long enough ago that Old Compton Street was the street of a hundred porn shops rather than a hundred gay coffee shops, I had a call from him inviting me for a lunchtime drink. He sounded excited which was unusual as Mike normally kept his enthusiasms on a tight leash. He was already in our customary corner of the Coach & Horses when I arrived and I had barely taken a sip of my pint before he broke his big news.
“I think I might have a lead on a complete print of The Golem! You know! The first of the three”.
I did know and was delighted for Mike. This discovery could be a significant feather in his cap. Mike had received a call from Kaspar, an old friend at the Czech National Film School in Prague, saying that a basement full of film stock had been discovered in an obscure government building. What you may ask does a room full of film cans in Prague have to do with a German movie made hundreds of miles away in Berlin while Prague was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Apparently at some point in late 1941 when the RAF began bombing Berlin on a nightly basis Goebbels decided to move the German National Film Archive, mostly held at the UFA studios, out of harms way to Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) which was out range of Bomber Command. The archive consisted largely of sound films made after the Nazis came to power but there was a significant amount of earlier silent material. Initially the Nazis had set out to destroy any film with a Jewish connection but they quickly realised that if they did this they would have virtually no pre 1930 film archive at all, so they picked out a few of the most obviously ‘Jewish’ titles for public burning but left the rest to moulder in their cans. The archive was loaded onto a train which duly set out for Breslau but were caught up in the preparations for the German assault on Russia and were diverted via Prague. At this point the train was commandeered by the Wehrmacht and the archive was dumped in warehouses near the main railway station. Eventually it was reloaded and continued on its way to Breslau apart from a couple of wagon loads which never made it. How do we know this? We know this because Germans are sticklers for paperwork and in the 1960s keen students of German cinema followed the paper trail and it appears that these 2 wagons never left Prague and have never been traced. Furthermore it appeared from a sketchy inventory that a substantial part of early German movie history might be in the missing consignment quite possibly including the The Golem. With some financial and administrative help from the BFI Mike was able to leave almost immediately for Prague and in fact was going the very next morning. I was both happy for him, who I always thought led an unnecessarily dull life, and a little envious. Czechoslovakia at that time had only just ceased to be a Soviet satellite and Prague was not the coach party and stag night venue that it is today, there was still a whiff of Cold War sulphur in the air of Wenceslas Square. I wished him well and we parted early as he had packing to do and a visa to collect.

Neither Mike nor I were of an age when letter writing was a normal thing to do so I was surprised a few days later to receive an airmail letter postmarked Prague. In his first sentence Mike anticipated my surprise.

Dear Ted,
A letter from me eh! Who’d have thought it, but there is no one here at the Pension Brezina who I can talk to as I don’t know a word of Czech (other than pivo which means beer) and my German is not good enough to hold a decent conversation with the couple from Munich that I meet in the breakfast room. As you can probably tell I am just a bit excited but I had better start at the beginning. The flight, the taxi, the blah blah were all OK. This Pension is run by a Mrs Folgar who is rather fat, wears incredibly frilly pink things and always wants to talk which can be tiresome but she gives me a glass of schnapps when I come in at night which makes up for a lot. It’s all a bit “Mr Norris Changes Trains” if you know what I mean. Anyway my flight landed mid-afternoon and I came straight here, dumped my kit and got a cab to the address of the storehouse, archive or whatever it is, that Kaspar gave me. I couldn’t resist I couldn’t wait. It was a ten minute ride to a very dull looking 1930s office block. I presented myself to a shabby commissionaire who said nothing but picked up the phone and spoke for a few moments looking at me suspiciously as he did so. After a couple of minutes a tall stern looking woman appeared and said simply ‘Passport’. I handed it over, she studied it for a while and then beckoned me to follow her down some stairs into the basement. We passed through a long room shelved out floor to ceiling, every shelf groaning with buff folders and, every 10 rows of shelves there was a man sitting at a desk doing nothing, and I mean nothing, not a crossword in sight. In the furthest corner of the room was a steel door which the stern lady opened with a key from a bunch that she wore on her belt. She pulled the door open reached inside for a light switch and then ushered me in. I found myself at the top of a short iron staircase looking down into a large room piled high with boxes, crates and above all thousands of cans of film. I don’t know if you ever saw that 70s movie’ Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ but at that moment I felt like a kid on the banks of the Chocolate River. I looked back at Miss Stern for confirmation that it was OK to go down and she shrugged and gestured with both hands indicating that it was all mine as far as she was concerned but then she raised a warning finger and by a rather elaborate mime made it clear that the office closed at 5.00. This was only half an hour away but enough time for an initial survey of my kingdom. Narrow aisles had been left between the stacks of crates and cans and I threaded my way around the room. At first glance there was no obvious system to the way that things were laid out but that was not surprising if you consider that the whole lot had been loaded and unloaded several times by people who didn’t give a damn. Some were identified with swastika headed labels, the type written script faded to a pale violet, some carried rather neat art-deco style UFA labels, some had labels from lesser German studios and many had labels that were either illegible or non-existent. I opened an unmarked can at random and held the first few feet up to yellowish light above my head. I couldn’t make out the credit titles but the celluloid seemed to be in perfect condition which was encouraging. I made a mental note to ask Miss Stern if I could have some replacement light bulbs and to buy myself a good torch. The only downside was the smell, there was a distinct tang of drains in the air but I guessed that after a few minutes I would stop noticing it. Miss Stern opened the door the door at the top of the steps and I took my cue to leave thanking her profusely as I went.

That was yesterday. This morning I was up early to buy the torch, plenty of spare batteries, a cheap desk lamp, sticky labels, an extension lead, cleaning materials, a lunch box and thermos which I filled with the help of Mrs Folgar. I put all of this with the flight case that contained my mobile preview kit into a taxi and set off for the archive, though to be honest it doesn’t deserve such a grand title. On the doorstep when I got there was Kaspar and Miss Stern who he quickly introduced as Mrs Nemcova (but I like to think of her as Miss Stern). We did a bit of Eastern European hugging (Kaspar & I, not Miss Stern who just looked stern) which I found difficult, but when in Rome….Then Kaspar explained that the ministry had asked him to come round and make sure that I understood what the terms of my visit here were. The doors opened at 9.00am and closed at 5.00pm, I had to be out by 5.00 not five-past. I was expressly forbidden from removing anything whatsoever from the archive, I was to leave a copy of any notes or inventories that I might make with the ministry. Smoking was absolutely forbidden. Beyond that the people of Czechoslovakia welcomed me to Prague. Then Kaspar announced that he had to go to Bratislava for a fortnight to organise a Slovak Film School, we did a bit more hugging then he left.
Miss Stern smiled at me thinly and then to my utter amazement handed me a key to the basement.

So here I am, all set up. The money from the BFI will cover me for a month and I guess I can fund myself for a couple of weeks after that. I pulled together some crates which I dusted down to give myself a work surface close to the only electric socket that I could see. I set up the BFI’s mobile viewer (it’s like the things you see in edit suites) and made a start. My Holy Grail is of course The Golem but I have a duty to dig up as much as possible in the time available so my plan is to ignore anything clearly labelled with a swastika and concentrate on cans that are from commercial studios or are unlabelled.
I picked a corner of the room and made a start. Irritatingly a lot of the unlabelled cans seem to be uncut documentary Nazi footage of good looking blonde young Germans building autobahns, bridges, factories or harvesting in glorious summer sunshine. There were three cans full of footage of rural blacksmiths at work. I have come across a few thrillers and romances. These I label carefully with cast and production credits and stack in date order. So far very little silent footage and that not of any great interest, the biggest drawback is the drain smell which doesn’t get any better though every time I open a film can I get a waft of a rather pleasant chemical smell which obliterates the drains for a moment. I ate my packed lunch in the park across the road and had a quick beer from a kiosk there. At five-to-five Miss Stern put her head round the door and I switched off and packed up. She was waiting for me as I came up out of the basement, she smiled broadly at me, said nothing but took a mirror from her handbag which she held up to me and laughed. I looked like a chimney sweep.
I went back to the pension, cleaned up, had supper with Mrs Folgar, collated my notes and now I have written you this letter. Not a bad first day eh!
Mike D
PS I can’t seem to get World Service on my tranny here. How did Everton get on at the weekend?

I was staggered to get a letter this long from Mike and his excitement was infectious. I called Liz, who I had kept in touch with even though she and Mike had broken up a couple of years earlier, to read her extracts. She had received an equally buoyant postcard from Prague. A week later I received another letter.

Dear Ted
End of Week 1
Firstly no sign of The Golem, but apart from that a really amazing week. Alright two thirds of what I have been viewing has been Nazi kitsch with occasional anti-semitic propaganda thrown in, but the other third! I think I have found at least half a dozen silents previously believed to be lost and several very early talkies that I have no record of and may be discoveries. The basement is a bit like a time machine, every morning I step on board and plunge straight into the 1920s and 30s, this really is an extraordinary experience.
On my second day Miss Stern greeted me at the front desk and presented me with a pair of green overalls which certainly make life easier. She sometimes pops her head round the door presumably to check if I am still alive but she never comes in. One day I was running one of my favourite finds, a series of silent clips of Berlin cabaret stars. I was watching a pair of excellent knockabout clowns called Klik and Klak when she opened the door, I waved for her to come down and take a look but she wrinkled her nose and retreated. On that same cabaret reel was some footage of a ventriloquist at work which must some of the worst use of silent film ever!
Some of the Nazi stuff is absolutely disgusting and after a while it gets to you and I don’t sleep too well. I have dreams where I am in a cornfield or a village street standing behind a pretty young girl with long blonde pigtails, I tap her on the shoulder and when she turns to look at me she has the face of a haggard old woman. The shock wakes me every time and I find I am drenched in sweat. I have another dream which is always identical, I see a Nazi official in uniform, wearing a cap the same shape as the one General de Gaulle used to wear but with a swastika on the front, he is standing on a street corner outside a butcher’s shop. He is fat and rather jolly but he seems to be inspecting the passers-by closely. Every so often a small boy runs up to him and points someone out in the crowd. He thanks the boy and pats him on the head. I have had this dream several times and while there is nothing particularly shocking in it I find it unsettling and the image of this man returns to me during the day. I think my problem may be the smell in the basement which is perhaps affecting me at night. It seems to be getting stronger. One morning I bought a bunch of flowers on my way in (I walk in every morning now, Prague is a splendid city awash with beautiful women) and I’m afraid that Miss Stern may have thought they were for her, she looked a bit miffed when I vanished into the basement with them. I put the flowers next to me on my workbench but after less than an hour their smell was overwhelmed by the drain smell. In fact the smell has changed a bit and is more like the smell of dossers sleeping rough. Do you remember the old bloke that used to sleep in that alley next to the Eagle? Remember the stench in that alley? It’s a bit like that but stronger. It got so bad that I tried moving my workbench to the other side of the room but that made no difference
Tomorrow is Sunday, my first day off. I will do touristy things, drink beer and leer at blondes.

Mike D

Another great letter and I was particularly cheered that he might be leering at blondes. The break up with Liz had been at her instigation, while they got on perfectly well, she felt that they weren’t going anywhere and that Mike’s lack of commitment was infuriating. Mike for his part was broken hearted but to be fair to Liz he was entirely bound up in his research and hadn’t been paying attention. Anyway Golem or not it looked as if the Prague trip might give his career a welcome leg up and if he got laid into the bargain all the better.

Or so I thought until 3 days later when I was having a quiet morning in my office with some budgets when Mike burst in. Our PA Agnes stood behind him waving her hands despairingly.
“Sorry Ted! He just ran in”
“No problem. Come in Mike. Make yourself at home” I said but then saw the look of panic on his face. “What is it?”
Mike grabbed my arm “Tell me I’m not mad. I think I’m going insane”.
“Calm down man. What’s happened?”
He was almost gibbering. I steered him to a chair.
“Sit down. Deep breaths and tell me what’s happened. I had a letter from you a couple of days ago”. I made a quick mental calculation, that letter would have been written a week ago. ”Everything was great then. What happened?”
Eventually he did sit down and started to talk more or less coherently. In the interests of clarity I have edited what he said.
“Everything was OK except for the smell. I became a bit obsessed about it, I became convinced that there was someone else in the room hence the dosser smell. I searched the room several times, I crawled around with my torch searching for the source of the smell and in the end I found that it was strongest where I was working. I moved my workbench a couple of times but the smell just followed me and seemed to get stronger. I tried to ignore it and I managed to plough on through mile after mile of Nazi Ministry of Works or whoever’s image of the new Germany, interspersed with the occasional romantic comedy or thriller. I did get better at spotting and avoiding the dull stuff which was good but I was barely making any inroads on the room as a whole and worst of all I was finding very little silent footage. Then two days ago I was spooling my way through a 20s costume drama and the smell was as bad as it ever had been….no hang on smell is the wrong word, stench is better, the stench was as bad as it had been, when I saw something move between the film cans on my workbench, a tiny movement, just out of the corner of my eye. I am methodical, you know me. Every morning I would stack what I was going to view at the left hand end of the bench and as I viewed, logged and sorted them I moved them across and they ended up at the right hand end of the desk so for most of the day I was faced by a wall of film cans and it was in a gap between two stacks that I glimpsed something pale move. A mouse or a moth? I hadn’t seen a trace of any living thing in the basement, no droppings, no cobwebs. I wasn’t sure what I had seen. I stood up and looked over and behind the cans. Nothing. It was the moment in a horror movie when one character says to another ‘Did you see that?’ and the other says ‘Oh it was nothing. A trick of the light.’ But I was alone so I said it to myself and carried on working. I still felt uneasy and for the first time I knocked off early and spent the evening wandering round Prague trying out different bars, chatting to anyone who could understand me, desperate to flush out what seemed to be a mental as well as a physical stink. That night my dreams were as vivid as ever, but in the one with the Nazi outside the butcher’s shop I had a different viewpoint. I was looking from behind him, over his shoulder, and I could see the passing crowds moving relentlessly down a long hill. At the bottom was a large building of some sort, a railway station or a factory.
The next morning I went back in and I felt OK. I worked well into the afternoon but then the same thing happened, the merest flicker of movement in the furthest periphery of my vision and the stench became overpowering. I got up and went to the top of the little iron staircase and gazed out across the basement. Nothing moved, there was not a sound, there was a smell, the stench, and nothing more, but I was frightened. I wanted to run out of the room and not come back. I sat down on the top step and did what I’m doing now, I tried to be rational. To be honest if it hadn’t been for my natural stubbornness and the thought that The Golem might be in that room I think I would have left there and then. Now I wish I had. Oh I really wish I had left right then.”
At this point Mike stopped and looked warily round the room checking for what I wasn’t sure. Then he went on.
“I mentally rolled up my sleeves, I went back and sat down at my bench and it was then that I saw what I had been sharing the basement with for the past fortnight. About two feet away from me, standing on the worktop was a tiny man, the size of my thumb, perhaps a little bigger, 4 inches tall, no more. He was completely naked, a fat man with a sagging belly, thinning black hair but above all he was filthy, he seemed to have soiled himself and he stank. I sat frozen, my mouth probably open, but I could make no sound. He smiled gently at me but I knew that he was evil, nothing but evil. There was a ruler on the bench and for a moment I thought I might grab it and chop him down, then I had the absurd thought that I could grab him, imprison him in my briefcase and exhibit him forever after in a freak show. I did neither because I knew that he was much more powerful than I was. He knew me, he understood me. His eyes said ‘I know all about you. I know what you really want.’“
Mike paused and asked if I had some water. He stood and looked out of the window while I went next door to fetch some. When I came back I was about to say something as he turned back from the window but I saw that he was crying.
“Ted it was pure evil and I was held by it. I couldn’t move. ” I gave him the water and sat him down again.
“Look” I said “ we both know that 4 inch high humans don’t exist. We both know…”
“Wait I haven’t finished.” he cut in “In the end I shouted at him, I don’t know what I shouted, but in fury or fear I shouted at him and then I ran up the staircase and out of the building into the fresh air. I was never going back into that basement again. I said to myself what you were about to say to me; that 4 inch high men don’t exist and therefore this must have been a hallucination but you and I had our fair share of hallucinations in our hippy days and this was nothing like those. He was as real as you are now and his smell was real too. I got on the first tram that passed and went back to the Pension Brezina where I called the airport and changed my flight for the first one this morning. I told Mrs Folgar that I had family problems back home and she could see that I was distressed and so made no difficulties about my leaving a month earlier than expected. She booked me a cab for this morning and promised to wash my overalls and return them to Miss Stern. In fact she rather took me in hand last night and put me in an armchair in her parlour, found some football on TV and brought me supper on a tray. We drank schnapps and more schnapps and I crawled up to my room to pack and hide from whoever or whatever the tiny man was. It was OK and I felt safe and eventually, helped by the schnapps, I went to sleep. Later something woke me, I turned on the bedside light and sat up, there was the sound of Mrs Folgar’s central heating and perhaps distant traffic but nothing else. Nothing in the room had changed but I was suddenly wide awake. Then it hit me the smell, the stench, was in the room. I was out of bed and dressed in seconds, I didn’t wait to see if I had a tiny visitor, I grabbed my bag, ran downstairs and out into the street. I walked until I found a taxi and went straight to the airport. I sat in biggest, most open space that I could find until the check-in desks opened and when I got through to the Departure Lounge I went straight to the bar and ordered a large Scotch and a salami roll. I sat on a stool….Jesus! Ted this was only four hours ago….and I buried my nose in the glass of scotch. I’m not a big Scotch drinker but what a great smell! I thought I was safe but next to me was a tray of condiments, vinegar, dressing and so on and I reached for the mustard and there was the tiny man, filthy, naked and leering at me. I jumped back and shouted at the girl behind the bar ‘Can you see him? Look he’s there!’ I looked again and he was gone. I fled before she could call security and went to wait at the departure gate. I came here straight from the airport. I didn’t want to be alone. I had to talk to someone”
“Ok. Let’s get you sorted.” I said, not feeling as calm as I sounded. “You have obviously been inhaling some sort of toxin in that basement and the first thing we need to do is get to the bottom of that. Who’s your GP?”
In his frantic state it took Mike a few moments to remember who his doctor was but when he did I made the call and Dr Bowmaker agreed to see him as soon as I could get him there. I got Agnes to cancel the rest of my day and Mike and I set off in a cab for West Hampstead where Mike still lived in the tiny flat that he and Liz had once shared. The doctor’s practice was a couple of streets away and I sat in the waiting room thumbing through six month old Hello Magazines and Gardener’s World while Mike went into the consulting room. After about twenty minutes Dr Bowmaker came out and beckoned me over to a quiet corner and asked me a few basic questions, essentially checking Mike’s story. When I had confirmed everything that Mike had presumably told him he said “I’m pretty sure that you got it about right when you said to Mike that he had been poisoned in that basement. There are a range of fairly obscure chemicals that can cause the delusionary effects that he seems to have been experiencing. To be on the safe side I’ve got him a bed tonight in a psychiatric unit, St Ursula’s, it’s just off the Finchley Rd. Do you know it?” I shook my head. He gave me directions.
“These toxins normally get flushed out of the system pretty quickly and leave no lasting effects. I would think that Mike will be right as rain in 48 hours. But what a chump to keep on going down there! Anyway I have given him a couple of hefty tranquillisers to keep him on an even keel until you get him to St Ursula’s. I hope that’s OK with you.”
I followed him back to the consulting room where Mike looked much better already.
“I am actually mad then it seems” he said cheerfully
“Yep. Stark raving bonkers. Come on St Ursula’s here we come” I replied.

St Ursula’s was exactly what an NHS hospital should be and not what the Daily Mail would have you believe they are. Modern, quietly efficient and above all reassuring, Mike was admitted with a minimum of fuss. He kept what he needed overnight and I took the remainder of his stuff to his flat. I called Liz who said she would look in on him the next morning. When I left him he looked, if not cheerful, at least relieved that matters had been taken out of his hands. In fact he spent two nights in St Ursula’s but was absolutely back to normal when, on the following Saturday, I went up to his place armed with a six pack to watch football on telly. We didn’t talk much about events in Prague and he seemed a little shamefaced to have caused such a fuss and so I glossed over it and we had a jolly evening.
A couple of days later I travelled to Edinburgh on business and I got a message to call Liz when I checked in to my hotel. She was in tears when she answered. Mike had hung himself the previous night. His body had been discovered by Mrs Jackson, his Jamaican cleaning lady who came in twice a week to tidy up and lecture him on his lack of a wife. Apparently he had hung himself off a hot water pipe in his tiny kitchen, in his death throes he had kicked a packet of cereal off the worktop and the floor was covered in corn flakes. He had left a note which said simply ‘Sorry. I can’t stand the smell’.

There was an inquest. Mrs Jackson and I gave evidence and a finding of suicide while the balance of the mind was disturbed was inevitable. The coroner muttered something about possible chemical imbalance but none of the tests carried out at St Ursula’s nor the post mortem showed any sign of toxins in Mike’s system. His mother Edie had travelled up from Paignton and Liz and I did our best to comfort her. We had both met her when Mike had been up at the university and she was devastated. She was long widowed and Mike was her only child, she kept scrapbooks containing all his articles, his few appearances on late night TV arts programmes were the stuff of legend in the crescent where she lived. The funeral, at Kensal Rise Crematorium was a sparsely attended and grim affair. There were a handful of relatives, some of Mike’s fellow denizens of the BFI library and a couple of old college mates. We had a drink in the pub across the road and no one found much to say. Before she left to catch her train back to Devon, Edie came to Liz and I and asked if we would mind organising the clearance of Mike’s flat. She had removed any personal items or mementoes and she said we should dispose of the rest as we saw fit. Of course we agreed and Liz and I decided to meet at the flat the next day to start sorting things out.

Liz was waiting for me on the doorstep of Mike’s block the following morning. I said “Are you OK for this? I can do it if you can’t.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s the least we can do for Edie”. She tried to look plucky but I could see that she clutched a tissue in one hand. We went up to the second floor and I opened Mike’s front door.
“Pooh” said Liz “something’s gone off in here”. She tossed her handbag onto the sofa and stomped off in the direction of the kitchen. The smell was overwhelming but not of rotting food. Surely it was the ‘stench’ as described by Mike. I felt terror, sheer terror, I looked around the room, I scanned the shelves of books, the piles of CDs, and finally the mantelpiece. Did something move? Something pale? What was Mike’s phrase? Was it a mouse or a moth?
“Liz!” I shouted “We’ve got to go! Now! Right now!.” I snatched up her bag and it was probably the fact that I was clutching her handbag rather than my expression that convinced her that, for whatever reason, we had to go. I seized her arm and dragged her away down the stairs and into the street. I made her run until we reached the corner. Over coffee in the kebab house next to the tube station I told Liz exactly what Mike had told me that day in my office, she had only heard the coroner’s version which vaguely mentioned delusions. We came to a guilty decision. I borrowed a copy of the Yellow Pages from behind the counter and arranged with a local company who advertised under the banner ‘House Clearances Undertaken’ for them to empty the flat and then we walked away.


Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Room 613

I loathe Las Vegas. I don’t fear it, I loathe it. Everything that is crapulent about the human condition is glorified, sanctified and beatified there. So, on the odd occasions when I have to go there on business, and I tell friends or colleagues where I am off to, they say things like “Oh you lucky dog” or “Nice work if you can get it” and I snarl politely. For me it is a long flight ending in a series of jet lagged meetings, punctuated by sleepless Nevada nights sitting up in bed watching reruns of Friends. The casinos are obscene, row after row of black-jack and crap tables, armies of robotic croupiers and acre upon acre of slots. The shows are bland beyond belief, even the Cirque du Soleil shows while being incredibly inventive and visually dazzling have all the emotional heart of a parking meter. The answer to survival in Vegas is to bring a lot of good books and a complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos on CD and lock yourself in your hotel room and pretend that you are in Berlin, though I have found that ordering room service in German doesn’t work. None of the above however has anything to do with the story that I am about to tell.

Some years ago a Las Vegas production of a musical that I was involved with was mooted. It was a heavy mechanical show and the Vegas version would require substantial building works and hydraulic plant installation. I was sent out by the London producers to referee a series of meetings between our creative team, the casino owners, who were promoting the show, and the local building contractors. My flight, in business, was pleasant enough, and. I was booked into the hotel attached to the casino, which for legal reasons I shall refer to as the ‘Miracle’. The hotel was one of the oldest in Vegas dating as far back as the 1970s but regular refurbishment had kept it near the top of the pile and the foyer was a triumph of excess over taste. I checked into room 614 and was escorted there by a smart young bell-hop who I duly over-tipped after he had shown me how to open the minibar and how to operate the TV. Unlike New York where hotel rooms come in two sizes, matchbox and shoe box, Vegas rooms tend to be more expansive and this one was no exception, with room to swing several cats. There was a vast double bed, a black marbled bathroom, a walk in wardrobe and the whole was furnished in surprisingly good taste. Next to the wardrobe was a door that was locked which presumably led to the adjoining room and could be unlocked in order to create a suite. The early morning sun streamed through the window and if I craned my neck I could just glimpse ‘The Strip’ though the gap between the Miracle and the Bellagio.

In the interests of ‘hitting the tarmac running’ I had taken a flight that got me into Vegas early in the morning and I had just enough time for a bath and breakfast before heading out to my first meeting. All present lived up to their stereotypes, the casino management looked like hit-men for the mob, the local contractors were all called Chuck and were enormously overweight and the UK creative team were all as camp as camp can be. Musical affairs occupied me all day and in the evening I had dinner with the Miracle’s General Manager, Mike Fiorelli. Mike was a relative newcomer to Vegas having moved there only five years before but had developed an almost obsessive interest in the history of the city. Somewhat tentatively, bearing in mind his surname, I asked him about the relationship between the Mafia and Vegas in general and The Miracle in particular. He chuckled. “Ted, that’s all in the past. These days Vegas is cleaner than Disneyland, everything’s corporate now, Warner, Time Life, Sony, and to keep us all on the straight and narrow the FBI and IRS have dozens if not hundreds of undercover agents in all the casinos. Frankly Ted we can’t blow our noses here without someone in Washington knowing.” Then he gave a wry smile “But it wasn’t always like this” and he told me a little about the origins of the Miracle. The original owner was a local man, Mortimer Woodford, whose family had been in the area long before Vegas as a gambling haven was even a twinkle in a mobster’s eye. They had made a lot of money selling plots of land to the casino developers and during the explosive expansion of the city during the 1970s Woodford decided that rather than selling land to others he would build his own casino, the Miracle. He was determined to outspend the competition and flew in architects and designers from Europe, Dior designed the staff liveries, the theatre was to be the largest in town but as construction started Woodford’s arrogance fuelled resentments from the other casinos, nearly all of whom were controlled by East Coast Mafia families. He began to be beset by difficulties, niggling at first, construction problems, union disputes and vandalism but as he soldiered on planning and licensing issues reared their head and he became bogged down in a string of long drawn out and expensive legal disputes.
‘Eventually’ said Mike ‘he ran out of time and money. Despite a lot of public statements that he was going to complete the Miracle ‘Come Hell or high water’ he had to sell out to Danny de Santos, a big player among the East coast families.” Apparently there was a meeting on site, Woodford had only built up to the sixth of thirty floors by that point, where de Santos forced him to sign over all rights to the Miracle. A bitter Woodford left Vegas never to be seen again. At that point Mike said we both had an early start and he went home and I headed back to my room.

I must have made the mistake of sitting down on the bed for a moment, because I woke fully dressed with cramp in my left leg and a mouth like sandpaper. I looked at the clock, it was a little after midnight which meant that I had only slept for about an hour. I felt exhausted but my body clock was nagging me to wake up and I went to a run a bath. As I came out of the bathroom I noticed that the room, without daylight, seemed much smaller than it had in the morning. I went to the window and tried to look down at the Strip, always a good view at night, but try as I might I couldn’t lean far enough to see past the adjoining building, which was strange because I had been able to in the morning. I gave up and turned on the TV, and there was the Friends episode about Phoebe’s aunt’s funeral so I took a drink from the mini-bar and settled down for a long night. After a while I became aware of thuds and bangs from the room next door, it sounded as though whoever was in there was moving furniture about. Occasionally I heard voices raised in argument, two men, maybe three perhaps. Out of pure nosiness I went to the communicating door and listened but the voices were too muffled for me to make anything out. If I had thought that I was going to get any sleep I might have rung down to Reception to complain but as it was I turned up the volume on the TV and eventually did doze off.

As I left my room to go down to breakfast in the morning the door of 612 (there was no 613) opened and a short blonde woman emerged, she wore a badge that said ‘ Realtors of the USA (South-West) – Tammy Verbanek’. She was wearing a pink tracksuit made from a material that might well have been a spin off from the Space Programme.
“You were busy last night” I said cheerfully, “were you changing the whole room round?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“I was busy trying to get some sleep while you and your drunken buddies were throwing stuff about!”
“I was in bed. Watching Friends.”
“Who was making all that ruckus then?”
I don’t know. It must have been from above or below I guess.” She eyed me suspiciously. “Going to breakfast?” I continued breezily.
“Sure” she said and as we walked along to the elevators she told me that she was from Tucson, Arizona, and that she was her company’s top earning realtor (which means estate agent for those of us brought up in the home counties) and that that had won her the right to attend this annual wing-ding in Vegas.
The restaurant, themed in Hollywood classical Greek style, was nearly deserted and Tammy, obviously a gregarious type, suggested that we sit down together. Over breakfast she told me about her life in Tucson, about her husband Duane, who had just been laid off from the tyre company where he had been a supervisor for twenty years, about her two kids, one at college and the other in the 6th grade and about her church, Americans have the ability to talk about their religion in a way that would make a C of E vicar cringe. I rather took to Tammy, like most Americans she remained cheerfully positive whatever the problems were that confronted her. Towards the end of our breakfast together she lowered her voice and asked “Did you hear screaming last night? I’m sure I heard screaming and it was a man screaming not a woman”.
“No” I replied “but I fell asleep at some point. Are sure it wasn’t on TV?”
“It didn’t sound like it. It came from your room. It didn’t sound as if someone was acting. You can tell you know”.
I assured Tammy that I hadn’t been torturing anyone in the night and we went our separate ways, she to her gung-ho realtors convention and I to a series of visits to contractors’ workshops. I finished off the day having a delicious Mexican dinner with the owner of a local prop shop and he joined me for a couple of nightcaps in the hotel bar. So it was very late when I got out of the elevator on the 6th floor and started the long trek along the deserted corridor towards my room. At the far end a door, on the same side of the corridor as my room, opened and for a moment the wall opposite was lit by brilliant light coming from the room, a man emerged and closed the door behind him. He turned and headed towards me, he was tall, dark and more formally dressed than is the norm in Vegas these days in a dark suit with a rather dated hat, the sort of hat that Spencer Tracy wore in Bad Day at Black Rock. He strode determinedly on, looking straight ahead. Had the corridors at the Miracle not possessed generous Vegas proportions he would have walked right over me, as it was I was able to move out of his way. He looked neither right nor left and appeared not to notice me as he pressed on towards the elevators. The door at the end of the corridor opened again and again there was a blast of light as a man very similar to the one that had just passed me came out and shut the door behind him. He had the same determined stride as his predecessor, in fact as the distance between us closed it became clear to me that he was absolutely identical to the first man. At this point I must confess to the reader that on the night in question I was decidedly drunk. We had been drinking Margeritas all evening and it doesn’t take many of them to addle my brains so I assumed in a good naturedly drunk way that I had just seen a pair of identical twins leaving a room near mine and at that moment that didn’t seem surprising, this was Las Vegas after all. There was something unnerving however about the way that that neither of them had acknowledged my presence with so much as the flicker of an eye.
By this time I was near the end of the corridor and I glanced up at the door numbers to see how near. I was at 612, which was Tammy’s room, and my room 614 would be next and at that moment the door to 614 was flung open and for an instant I was caught in the blast of light that I had seen before and a man brushed past me closing the door. He set off down the corridor and I could see that he was dressed in exactly the same way as the other two and walked in the same distinctive way. I was about to shout after him “Hey that’s my room, what were you doing in there” when I was distracted by what I had just glimpsed through the open door. Firstly there had been the light, incredibly bright, not artificial, not theatrical but exterior noonday desert sun. secondly I had seen a man in shirt sleeves sitting on a straight backed wooden chair, there was a bucket and a hammer on the floor next to him. I had seen him only fleetingly and only in silhouette but I was sure that he was terrified. I stood undecided, stunned actually, something extraordinary was going on in my room, but then the number on the door caught my eye. It was 613 not 614, the man in the chair was next door and not in my room. After a couple of abortive attempts I managed to get my keycard into the lock of 614 and fell through the door and onto my bed. I lay there for a few seconds but then realised that if I didn’t get up immediately I would pass out so I managed to get undressed and went and sat under the shower. I turned the water to cold and stayed there until I could bear it no longer, I turned the water off and as I did so I could clearly hear screaming. As Tammy had said it was a man screaming and it was coming from next door. I pulled on the hotel issue bathrobe and went out into the corridor, the screams sounded even louder there. I scuttled past 613 and knocked on 614.
“Tammy! Are you OK ?”
The door opened instantly and she dragged me inside.
“Now you can hear it huh!” she said.
“Yes let’s call the front desk or security or something”.
She went to the phone.
“Hello we have a problem up here. Something terrible is happening in 613. We can hear screaming”
I hit the speakerphone button and added “someone is being killed next door. We need the police or security now!”
“OK. Is this Mrs Verbanek that I’m talking to? I can see that you are calling from 612 and you say the problem is in 613?” The man on the switchboard sounded reassuringly calm.
“Yes “I said “and I’m Mr Irwin from 614. The screams are definitely coming from 613, the room between us”
“OK folks security are on their way and will be there momentarily but I have a problem here in that there is no room 613, there are no ‘13s’ on any of the floors of this hotel or any other in Vegas. Gamblers are superstitious.”
“Go check again” whispered Tammy to me. I felt a rush of cowardice but could think of no plausible excuse for not going, so while Tammy held the door open, I quickly popped out into the corridor, dreading meeting another fedora hatted man, but no one emerged and I was able to confirm that the number on the door was indeed 613. As I turned back into Tammy’s room I saw two heavily built men hurrying along the corridor, the first to arrive introduced himself as Bill Stover, Deputy Head of Security at the Miracle. They joined us in 614 and we explained what we had heard and when.
“And the noises definitely came from 614 through there?” asked Bill gesturing at the inter-connecting door.
“No!” said Tammy “from 613 next door, Mr Irwin is in 614!”
“Pardon me Ma’am but there is no 613”
“Go check it out” said Tammy
We all trooped out into the corridor and Bill gazed at the number plate next door which clearly read 613. He started to talk into his radio “Hi I’m outside 613 ………….Yeah Yeah. I know but I’m standing outside 613. It’s kinda weird somebody must’ve been monkeying with the number plates.” He went on to explain what was going on and that he was going to enter 613. He asked us to withdraw up the corridor then standing slightly to the side of the door he knocked firmly. His sidekick, who I had noticed from his badge was named Isidore, stood on the other side with his hand on his gun. There was no reply to Steve’s first knock and he tried again saying loudly as his did “Hello this is hotel security please open the door”. He took out what I assumed was a master key card from his pocket and was then confounded to find that there was no key lock on the door nor indeed any sort of lock, just a door handle. He tried the handle, it didn’t budge, he gestured to Isidore, a fat free 18 stone, to kick the door in. Tammy and I stood 20 yards up the corridor and at that point I noticed that she was wearing a truly remarkable mauve quilted dressing gown and she noticed that I was drunk. “Are you drunk?” she asked.
“Yes. Does it show?”
“It certainly does” she replied with a frown of disapproval.
“Sorry” I said
“It’s OK” and she edged closer to me as Isidore launched himself at the door. He bounced back and fell to the floor, rubbing his ankle and gasping with pain. The door had not even vibrated under the impact of 18 stone Isidore.
“I’m calling a Code 3” said Steve into his radio.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Oh just that we get a duty manager and maintenance up here and we stand-by local law enforcement” He shushed Isidore who was using language that was making Tammy flinch. We all went back into her room and were joined a few minutes later by Mike Fiorelli and two men in orange overalls called Estevan and Julio who carried hefty tool boxes.
Mike nodded to me and then turned to Steve.
“What’s going on?”
“We have a 613 where we shouldn’t have a 613” said Steve and led Mike out into the corridor. I followed a few moments later and took Mike to one side and explained what I had seen.
“Are you drunk?” he asked when I had finished.
“Yes. Does it show?”
“Yes, but never mind. This is really weird.” He asked me to describe in detail the man or men that I had seen in the corridor and the man in the chair.
We went back into 612 and Mike pointed to the door that in theory connected with my room but must now connect with 613, “Do we have a key for this?” he asked Steve who examined the traditional keyhole and then shook his head. The men in orange went to work and in a few moments they had prised the door open. They revealed another door which they also forced revealing my room, embarrassingly strewn with dirty clothing, but there was no sign of 613, just an 18” concrete filled gap between the two rooms. The men in orange were then sent out into the corridor to force the door labelled 613 but came straight back looking confused.
“There’s no 613 sir” Estevan said. “Next door is 614.” Mike shook his head impatiently and shoved them out of his way as he went to look for himself. We all followed. Estevan was right, there was no 613. Mike looked at me. I said “You saw it didn’t you?”
He nodded, I looked at Steve and Isidore and they nodded. There was silence, there was no explanation that we could share. An elevator ‘dinged’ in the distance and a group of late night gamblers appeared at the end of the corridor. Mike shooed us all back into Tammy’s room. Was it my imagination but did her room seem bigger than it had a few moments before, I pulled back the curtain to see The Strip and beyond that the sun rising over the desert.
“Steve call down and let’s get these folks relocated to a couple of suites on the top floor.” Steve started to talk into his radio. Mike turned to Tammy and I. “Look I’m truly sorry that all this has happened though I’m not sure what exactly has happened here. I’ll get some people to help you move your stuff” Tammy had moved into the opening between the two rooms while he said this.
“Why is the gap between the rooms so big” she asked.
Good point, I thought, hotel walls can normally be measured in microns rather than inches.
“Are there services, air con or something running up there” I suggested.
“No” said Mike “all the services run up a central core”.
“What’s this? Come here Ted” Tammy was peering at the knobbly surface of the concrete that filled the gap between the two rooms
I moved next to her and looked where she was pointing.
“These are fingers aren’t they?”
There were four lumps that seemed to be finger shaped or at least the top joints of four fingers but I was about to dismiss them as lumps created in the rough concrete by chance when I noticed the unmistakeable shapes of fingernails. I reached forward and picked at one of them and a concrete encrusted nail broke away and fell to the floor revealing a yellowish larva of some sort in a dark brown cavity. Tammy shrieked and recoiled in disgust as the maggot wriggled its way free and dropped onto her slipper. A trickle of foul smelling black liquid followed and then I could see the top of a finger bone, a distal phalange to be exact, though I didn’t know that at the time, I just wanted to be sick. Suddenly we were surrounded by concerned hotel staff who more or less carried us bodily away from the horror in the concrete and whisked us upstairs to separate suites of absurd luxury. Mike arrived about twenty minutes later with a couple of Xeroxed photos in his hand.
“Is this the guy in 613, the guy in the chair?” he asked showing me a picture of a well built white haired man of about 60.
“I don’t know” I said “Could be but I only saw him in silhouette. Who is he?”
“Mortimer Woodford. Is this the guy in the corridor?” he said handing me the other picture.
“Yes! Absolutely! Unmistakable. That’s him. Who’s he?”
“Danny de Santos” replied Mike who was looking very tired.
“Shit! He was here tonight”.
“I don’t think so. Danny de Santos was shot dead in a bar in Hoboken New Jersey in 1984”.
We sat for a while not saying anything.
“Look Ted I don’t know what you think about all this…”
“I think Danny de Santos tortured Mortimer Woodford until he signed over the Miracle to him and then incorporated him in the building and somehow tonight we’ve or rather I’ve been shown that.”
“Yeah well whatever”. Mike looked uncomfortable “This doesn’t look great for the Casino Ted and I would be grateful if what happened tonight went no further”.
I considered for a moment. With a show about to open in the Miracle’s theatre it wasn’t in my interests to rock the boat and whatever I said or did wouldn’t help poor Mortimer Woodford entombed between rooms 612 and 614.
“OK Mike. No problem.” He looked immensely relieved as he left me to enjoy the remains of my stay in the Sammy Davis Suite.
On my return to the UK I kept an occasional watch on Las Vegas local news websites but nothing about Woodford or De Santos ever came up but I was surprised and delighted the following Christmas, and every Christmas since, to receive a vast Fortnum & Mason’s hamper with a card from ‘the Management & Staff of the Miracle Casino – Las Vegas’.
What of Tammy? I never saw her again after that moment when the maggot landed on her slipper but I did manage to trace her to her office in Tucson and I called her. She was polite but didn’t seem very pleased to hear from me and I think she didn’t care to be reminded of the events in Room 613, however she did hint in a roundabout way that the Casino had eased her financial worries both long and short term. So as the song goes “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”.

Those of you who know anything about ghost stories will have realised by now that the above is a retelling of M R James classic story ‘Number 13’ set in a rural Danish inn and originally published in 1904. James’s ghost stories are absolutely the best and published in a collection called ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ which is still in print.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map