29. The Long Shadow

By Peter Fraenkel

Long after the funeral we continued arguing. Had it been an accident – as the inquest had said – or suicide?

I was among the minority who believed in suicide but I claim to have known him better than most – except Jennifer, his long-suffering girlfriend, the last of a series. I had, after all, shared a cottage with him for almost a year – until he walked out saddling me with the entire rent. I still resent this. I could ill afford it.

Often I had heard him talk about his two spells in Masada, that mountain fortress in the Judean dessert. He had worked there as a volunteer with the archaeological team. At this site, many years ago – in fact some sixty or seventy years after Jesus – the last few hundred of the defenders had killed one another rather than fall into the hands of the Romans and be paraded in a triumph. Daniel argued that not all could have died by the swords of their comrades. The very last must have thrown themselves off the cliffs. Four hundred meters high, he told me! A sheer drop! He talked about it repeatedly. Obsessively. And now he had himself died plunging off a cliff – not in the parched Judean desert but in lush, green Wales. Surely….

Others were not convinced. They found it impossible to accept that a healthy young man, successful in his career and popular with women, might thus wish to end his life. Jennifer, his last girlfriend, even had doubts that he was dead at all. She insisted on having the coffin opened. She had known his macabre sense of humour. His sister, who had not been consulted, was outraged. The undertaker apologized he had not known there was a sister. There was so much about him that people did not know! But one thing was certain now – he was dead and buried. Well, cremated actually.

But what had been his name – his real name? I knew of three – Delaney, Smollett and Hogarth – all fictitious! Perhaps there had been more. In our circle he was called Smollett. For each name had invented a detailed personal history. He was the son of a Kenya settler who had drunk away the family’s fortune. Or – his father had died heroically fighting the fascists in the trenches around Madrid. Or – he came from a family of sheep farmers in the South African Karoo. In constructing this last he had to consult me on Afrikaans pronunciation. After a mere fortnight with a Teach Yourself book he spoke the language quite well – probably better than I did.

There was no doubt about it – he was talented. He had at his fingertips the history of the Spanish civil war, the agricultural problems of the Karoo desert and the social life of the Kenya elite. But by profession he was a civil engineer and specialized in bridges. Once I noticed the light in his room staying on all night. Next morning he explained sleepily. The previous day’s papers had reported an unusual rail accident. A heavy lorry had hit the pier supporting a railway bridge from the side. This had brought it down and caused a train to derail with some loss of life. He explained that when one designed a bridge one calculated the weight pressing down on it. One did not anticipate a sideways impact. So – he had spent most of that night checking all the designs of all his bridges to see whether the piers needed reinforcing.

I complemented him on his concern for people he would never meet and for a problem he had not encountered in over ten years as an engineer. He waved this aside: “Bullshit! What I care about is my income. Who is going to employ me if my bridges fall down?

I had met his sister and her family before I ever met him. Thus I knew more about his background than he liked anyone to know. The sister had suggested that, since Daniel and I were both house hunting, we might be able to afford a better place if we moved in together. From her I knew that they were German Jews – as I am. He had come to England on a Kindertransport. Their parents had hoped to follow but war broke out and borders had clanged shut. For years he hoped to be reunited with them, then discovered they had been murdered in Nazi gas chambers. This cast a long shadow over his short life. A very long shadow! At the age of twelve or thirteen an ill-funded Jewish agency had placed him with an English working class family who were paid a modest sum for his keep. A year or two later he had been sent to work in a shoe factory in the Midlands. He, however, had other ideas. He came from a well-educated family and was determined to regain their status. He went to see the local rabbi and demanded help to get an education. The rabbi had only one suggestion. He could offer a scholarship for a rabbinical seminary – provided Daniel wanted to become a rabbi. He was totally irreligious – at least he was when I got to know him. However he agreed immediately. Of course, it had been his life’s ambition to become a rabbi. On his second Sabbath at the seminary he sneaked out to the cinema. His rabbinical career came to an abrupt end.

He did, eventually, succeed in getting to university but that was after military service in the British army on an ex-serviceman’s grant.

After we had shared a house for a while I once said it was high time he told me his real name. “Stiller”, he said and grinned that twisted grin of his. I saw no reason to doubt that Stiller had been the family name.

When he died they found a will that caused amazement among our friends. At that early age none of us has even thought of making a will. Anyway, what did we have to leave? He, however, owned a block of flats with four apartments and had sizeable investments. The will had been made between his first and his second spell among the vertiginous cliffs of Masada. It seemed to confirm my suspicion that even then he had contemplated suicide.

How had such a young man – not quite 35 – accumulated such a large capital? He was obsessively mean. “Shampoo?” he told me: “A racket! Any laundry soap will do the same job – better.” He drove a scratched and battered old jalopy: “More fun,” he said “I don’t have to worry about dents. And if some snooty toff drives past in a shiny sports car I graze him. You should see their faces: puce!”

He boasted that he had not spent a penny on rent for over two years. No, not a penny. He had been working for a large engineering firm before he set up on his own. He found that the boss had a comfortable bed in his office, used for siestas and, perhaps, for private assignations. There Daniel had been sleeping at night. He shaved and showered early in the morning, then went out for breakfast before the cleaners same. He turned up for work when his colleagues did. To me he grumbled about the exorbitant charges of laundries.

Eventually his sister had persuaded him to share a flat with me. For a few weeks we got on well. That twisted sense of humour made him a good conversationalist. But our sharing could not last. Every time I bought cleaning materials he objected: “Quite unnecessary. A waste of money.” I also hated one of the duties he left to me. His relations with women were fraught. He pursued them aggressively but fled when he had succeeded in bedding one. Then it was up to me, his flat mate, to engage her in doorstep conversations while he climbed out through a back window. Was he so scared of emotional attachments?

He must have been a bit put out when I mentioned that my parents were coming to visit England. They were sitting in my car outside a doctor’s surgery, not far from our flat. I had gone in to make an appointment for my mother. My parents had not yet met him but he recognized the car and realised who the passengers were. He thrust his head through the window and bawled the Nazi slogan “Juden raus!” – Jews out!

My parents were severely shaken. He thought it was a great joke. He’d always had a bizarre sense of humour. When he saw how angry I was he moved out of our flat abruptly – saddling me with the entire rent.

He had, some time before, started his own engineering practice. He had co-opted a colleague. They did moderately well for some months but then, unexpectedly, struck gold. A large firm of architects, for whom Daniel had earlier done a job, offered them a lucrative contract. It would have kept the two of them busy for a good while. Next morning Daniel dissolved the partnership and seized the contract for himself. The partner protested and threatened to sue but soon realised that a court case would be expensive and time consuming. He appealed to Daniel’s sense of decency. Daniel dismissed this contemptuously.

“Altruism? That’s for losers. A man must act in his own interests. If he doesn’t he’s a weakling….. contemptible.”

His will had left his block of flats and his investments to his sister’s children. But the entire contents of his flat and the long lease were left to Jennifer, his last girlfriend. This created a problem. Had he foreseen it? Perhaps even plotted it? He did have a twisted sense of humour.

There was a family heirloom – the only one they had managed to save from Germany: an 18th century silver cockerel. It had belonged to their parents. The sister, who had emigrated several years before Daniel, had brought it to England. For many years she had displayed it in her house. When she saw how attached he was to this – the only survival from their parental household – she had lent it to him. After his death she came to take it back. Jennifer, however, had protested that he had left the flat and its entire content to her. The cockerel was one of the few reminders she had of her dead lover. There were emotional arguments, tears, even threats of legal action. Both women demanded my support. I refused to take sides and for several months I avoided seeing either of them. On the first anniversary of Daniel’s death, however, I relented and went to visit the sister. I was braced for a sad occasion.

It wasn’t. On her mantelpiece I saw two identical silver cockerels. How come? The sister explained: To cut short the arguments and to avoid a court case she had found a silversmith who had made her an exact replica. It was this replica that she had surrendered to Jennifer. But time is a great healer. Jennifer recovered and found a new boyfriend. She realised she had acted meanly, went to see the sister and brought back the silver bird. Now two identical birds stood on her mantelpiece, glaring at each other – as if ready to launch into a cockfight. We laughed. I could well imagine that twisted grin if Daniel had still been there.

The sister wanted me to have a memento of her brother. She handed me a book which, she said, had been one of his favourites. It was the Swiss author Max Frisch’ novel “I’m not Stiller”.