The Old Man
I keep the old man locked away. He’s been in a secure vault for years. I used to worry that someone might hear him—interminable entreaties, captivating promises—yet no one else seemed to notice. Until you appeared today.
I know what you’re thinking—guilt should be gnawing at me. An easy assumption, but that situation is rather complex. This isn’t about self-preservation. A change in his position would have consequences well beyond the two of us.
I first encountered the old man in September 1939. His whispers drifted down from the attic into my room. Pleading, sometimes angry, he called me by name, begged me for release. My grandparents brushed aside my fears as the over-active imagination of a seven-year-old. Later, I learned that my grandfather, a high-level member of MI6, had been entrusted with the old man’s care.
Everything changed when the order for the evacuation of London children came through. Arrangements were made with a cousin in Inverness, my worldly goods compressed into a small leather case. The morning of departure my grandfather took me aside. One hand on the family Bible, I recited an oath, then followed him to the attic. The old man’s voice grew louder as we approached. Struggling with the seized lock, my grandfather forced the key. The dim room tasted of stale air and dust. I looked for an elderly gentleman among boxes and trunks in the haze, but no one was there. A hollow laugh came from dusky corners—low, rising to fill the space. I covered my ears, yet his mirth continued in my head. My grandfather pulled away my hands. “Listen to him boy, but be careful of his advice.” I watched my grandfather pry open a trunk, tossing aside ancient garments. He handed me a small, flat object, wrapped in several layers of dense, black fabric.
“It’s a sketch of an old man,” He grabbed my shoulders, fingers digging into my flesh.
“You must never look at him. Do you understand?” he said.
“Keep the him hidden, but protect this sketch with your life. In the wrong hands…”
Normally so controlled, my grandfather became a stranger. Fear, no, terror. It was there in that room. A drawing? Why did it speak to me? My throat was clogged with dust and tears. “Do you understand?” I nodded although I did not.
The old man travelled to Scotland in my case that day. No one else on the train seemed to hear his whispers. Nor did my cousins notice a disembodied voice during my years with them. The old man counselled me, comforted me as my world fell apart. Home destroyed, my grandparents killed in the Blitz. I listened. He told me what to say, how to act. At first I resisted, but the old man is patient with centuries of manipulative wisdom.
After the War, I kept him with me at boarding school, finding secure hiding places under his direction. He called me his protégé and said we were destined for great things. While I had academic success, the old man taught me other skills. How to cheat, to manipulate, to outwit enemies. No one dared cross me. Not just the other boys, but the staff grew to fear my power as well. The old man guided me to special drawers and private journals. Darkest secrets to sell. I picked the lock on Mr. Lewis’ desk, held his pictures of French girls for ransom; traded the Headmaster’s scotch for essays and exam cribbing.
Schooling complete, I entered the adult world with insight beyond my years. The old man guided my investments. He knew what people craved in good times, as well as bad. My largess brought women. The old man’s whispers guided conversations, even seductions. He took over my limbs, pulsed through my veins, shared my inhales and exhales. Always there, he never left me to think or act alone.
I shifted money markets, orchestrated political scandals. However, no deal had enough value, government turmoil a minor amusement. I became insatiable. The old man said the time had come for me to gaze upon him. Only then could I achieve such immense power. Yet, I hesitated.
One autumn night, a storm rattled the windows, while logs sparked in the fire. I heard his words, soft and sweet in my ears, dampening the noise. I began to unwrap the worn black cloth surrounding him. My fingers clung to the fabric, peeling back layers. When a corner of the frame emerged, I heard a moan and dropped it.
I poured a large brandy, liquid quaking in the glass. What did this mean? Hadn’t the old man called for me to face him? On weak legs, I walked to the fireplace, gripped the marble. A flash in the over-mantle mirror. Not my reflection, but grandfather’s face. “No, don’t!” he mimed. I grabbed the sketch and threw it into the fire. The fabric ignited and a pungent odour made me gag. Two disembodied voices argued. I sheltered my head with a cushion, but couldn’t suppress their shouts. When it stopped, I looked up, saw the flames extinguished, but the sketch intact. “You must never look at him.” Eyes averted, I wrapped the old man in my jacket. He gave a satisfied laugh.
What have I learned over these wasted decades? Money smooths every path, silences questions before they are asked. Governments posture, make pronouncements, but they are fleeting and inconsequential. History is made behind shadow curtains. Great men are scoundrels.
I found this ancient place, beyond world’s end, or so I thought. Fortified and secure. We have lived here, entombed together. I hoped that no one else would hear his call and the world remain safe. You can leave. No? Pity. I feel your hunger. Mark this, he taught me well. Long after you’ve disposed of my body, the old man will remain within an impenetrable vault, gazing upon eternal gloom, beckoning but always out of your reach.