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In the autumn of 2006, shortly after his memorably hostile interview with the President of the United States and following the publication of his elder son's novelised autobiography, cruelly entitled Under His Shadow, celebrity journalist, broadcaster and documentary film-maker Harold Cleaver boarded a British Airways flight from London Gatwick to Milan Malpensa, proceeded by Italian railways as far as Bruneck in the South Tyrol and thence by taxi, northwards, to the village of Luttach only a few kilometres from the Austrian border, from whence he hoped to find some remote mountain habitation in which to spend the next, if not necessarily the last, years of his life. Ratting on your responsibilities, had been Amanda's interpretation. She is the mother of his children. The responsibilities of a man at my time of life, the eminent and overweight Cleaver told his partner of thirty years, can be no more than financial, and, acting on a decision taken only hours before, he signed over to her a very considerable sum of money of which neither she nor their three surviving children could possibly have any immediate need, with the exception perhaps of the younger son Phillip who was always in need, but never accepted anything.
The following morning, climbing on the train to Gatwick, still rather dazed to find himself taking such a momentous step, Cleaver switched off his two mobile phones. This is not just another of your many projects, he repeated to himself. He was sitting opposite a young man cradling a CD player, his lips silently singing. You are not, as has been the case on other extended trips, planning to write a book, or to make a documentary. The young man, he noticed, had a glazed look in his eyes. He hasn't recognised me, thank God. The CD player was whirring. The culture, such as it may turn out to be, Cleaver told himself firmly, of the South Tyrol need not be analysed, ironised, criticised or eulogised. A recorded voice warned that the doors were about to close. The business of living in a remote mountain cabin need not be dramatised or serialised. Nor written up à la Thoreau into a sort of Walden. The train began to move. The Thames was suddenly beneath, then behind. The familiar sprawl of South London accelerated away.
Nor can there be any question of recommending anything to anybody, Cleaver was still reflecting an hour later as the airport shuttle took him to the North Terminal, or of reporting home on any wisdom supposedly acquired. He was lucky to be able to purchase a ticket for almost immediate departure. I have no baggage, he declared. Nothing. Nothing, Cleaver finally muttered, as he adjusted a safety belt to his girth, will be brought back from this trip for insertion in the national debate. For so many years a master of the public voice, he would now leave it behind. Such is the extraordinary idea that has somehow thrust itself upon Harold Cleaver during these last few days of remarkable public notoriety and intense private turmoil: I must shut my big mouth.
On the train that took him from Milan to Verona, Cleaver shared a compartment with a young woman absorbed in the study of what appeared to be some kind of marketing report. There were bar charts and he noticed the subheading Bacino di afflusso. Moving back and forth across the print, her eyes would occasionally hesitate before she stopped to underline a word or phrase with a rapid, predatory jerk of the wrist. Every five minutes or so, distractedly, she resettled a white shawl that continued to slip down over slender arms, and sometimes, in her pensiveness, she smiled, or frowned, and her free hand slowly twisted a strand of dark hair between knowing fingers. Cleaver was pleased, at Verona, that he had not tried to talk to her. Only as he stood up to leave the compartment did their eyes meet in the mutual awareness that they would never see each other again. This is an excellent start, he thought. It was Mother's constant complaint, his elder son had written in the opening lines of Under His Shadow, that my father was as utterly incapable of leaving any woman alone as he was utterly, absolutely and irremediably incapable of turning down any offer of food or drink or cigarettes, or, even more chronically, any opportunity to appear in public at any moment of the day or night. He was ambition, avarice and appetite incarnate – the three As as he called them – at once and always carnal and carnivorous. I have not eaten, Cleaver suddenly realised as he studied the departures board at Verona Porta Nuova, since my early morning tea and toast.
From Verona a second train followed the river Adige north up the Valpolicella into the gloomy mountains of Trentino. There were few houses on the slopes here. The barren formlessness closing in on either side of the train promised a solid barrier. It was fascinating how people had reacted to his son's book, Cleaver thought, or rather to his son's book in combination with the famously destructive interview of the President of the United States. Perhaps the man would win the mid-terms anyway. He was weary of thinking of such things. When a group of teenagers with knapsacks climbed on at Rovereto, Cleaver felt in his pockets for his earplugs. It was not that he had brought any reading material. There will be no more reading, he had decided. He just did not want to hear, even in a language he did not know, their shared life, their noisy collective identity. If I must shut my mouth, he thought, I can stop my ears too. There would be no more voices of any kind.
Almost alone on the platform at Franzensfest, just below the Brenner Pass, Cleaver was struck by the sweetness of the air. What smell is this? Of cut grass, cow shit, sawn wood, of snowmelt running on stone. He stood there, unsettled, listening to the insistent clang of the station bell announcing the arrival of his train. He looked up to see a waterfall tumbling down from slopes high above. I will write no letters, he thought, aware now that he was approaching the end of his journey. He had not brought a laptop. Or even a notepad. Or even pen and paper. Whatever is about to happen to me, or around me, need never be told or expressed.
From Franzensfest to Bruneck, the railway is reduced to a single line. Cleaver gazed out of the window as the train crossed and recrossed a grey river flowing in the opposite direction. Only one other man shared the carriage. At Ehrenburg they stopped for almost twenty minutes to wait for the westbound train. The twilight deepened in the deep valley. A slamming of doors left the air quieter and colder. Well before Bruneck, the other passenger was standing impatiently, switching his briefcase from hand to hand.
Luttach, Cleaver told the taxi driver. It was the first word he had spoken since the purchase of his ticket at Gatwick, since calling Amanda from Victoria to say goodbye. It was his destination. At least tell me where it is you're going, she had demanded. The whole world's trying to contact you. Luttach? The driver asked for confirmation. He filled the name with catarrh. Cleaver had refused to tell her. Luttach, he repeated in the cab, altering his pronunciation to satisfy the driver. The man was wearing a green felt hat above a ruddy face, a heavy moustache. He can't believe his luck, Cleaver thought, as the meter began to measure the distance. That's a London thought, he corrected himself at once, an old thought. If my father, his elder son had written, could take a taxi to go to the end of the street, he would, he did. After all, he was always on expenses. The only account I ever give of myself, he used to joke at dinner tables, is an expense account. This taxi ride is the last, Cleaver decided. He was paying with his own money.
The car proceeded sensibly northwards up the Ahrn valley. Again they were crossing and recrossing a river flowing against them. The water was faster now, flecked with white. They were climbing steadily. By the time they passed the village of Gais the autumn darkness was complete. Lights pricked out here and there on the slopes far above. This is what Cleaver has always remembered from his one previous visit to the South Tyrol: isolated lights high up in the alpine night. This is what has brought him here.
When the valley narrowed to a gorge above Sand in Taufers, the driver asked: Wohin wollen Sie? I'm sorry? Cleaver has forgotten what little German he once knew and has no intention of recalling it. In part, he has come here because he doesn't know German. Address, the man said. Hotel, Cleaver told him. He couldn't remember the name of the place he had stayed in with Giada. It didn't matter. Any hotel. The driver shook his head, risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Alles geschlossen. He pronounced the words slowly and emphatically. Sommer ist zu Ende. Der Winter ist noch nicht da. Alles geschlossen, he repeated.
Cleaver waited. The man will have seen I have no luggage, he thought. On the flat again above the gorge they passed the modern development around the base of the ski lift. The whole complex was in darkness. Hotels, alle geschlossen, the driver insisted. But he keeps driving, Cleaver observed. Five minutes later the car pulled up in the tidy main street of Luttach. The shop windows were dark. Everything is shuttered. Cleaver didn't move to get out. Hotel? he asked. A taxi driver always knows where to find a bed for the night. The meter is still counting, time now rather than space. Zimmer? the man suggests. Ja, Cleaver told him. Perhaps he knows more German than he thought. His high school hadn't been the worst in the world. The car proceeded along the main street, and turned left up the hill.
Kommen Sie doch. The driver took Cleaver by the elbow and leaned on a heavy door. It's a bar, a bare room with wooden floor, wooden benches and tables, a dozen red-faced men in two groups talking loudly over cards. But there's a woman serving. The driver went to speak to her. They're old friends. Standing at the door, Cleaver savoured the foreignness of it, the hubbub of words one could treat as mere noise, the difference of the decor, the men's clothing, the smell. A wood smell, Cleaver thought, and there's smoke and leather and beer. It was exciting. The wall too, he saw, was clad in wood and there were old wooden skis arranged crosswise above the counter and dusty porcelain dolls on a mantlepiece over a fire of smouldering logs.
The woman came to speak to him. She is the kind of woman one calls handsome, past her best that is. Wie viele Tage? She was wiping her hands on a blue apron. Her skirt was grey wool. Cleaver shook his head. Then he was irritated when he realised that he was imagining himself on camera. He was acting the eminent man in the back of beyond for an imaginary audience. Just look where Cleaver's doing his show this week! One week the US President, the next the forgotten heart of the Europe. Observe, he would tell the audience, the unusually large, carved wooden crucifix hanging over the bench in the corner, the Christ's twisted limbs, the sombre resignation of the upturned eyes. Armin! The woman went to a door and called down a dark passageway. Armin! You must stop doing this, Cleaver decided. Armin, kimm iatz! You must just be here, he told himself, and nothing else. No running commentary. No more politicians. The men at their tables showed no curiosity. Someone slapped down a card and started to laugh quite raucously. It's not even German they're speaking, Cleaver realised, but some rough mountain dialect. So much the better.
A boy in his mid teens appeared, reluctant. His hair is long and seems to have been dyed coal black. He wears an earring with a silver skull. How many days you want the room? he asked. I'm not really quite sure as yet, Cleaver said. He corrected himself: I don't know. The woman has seen, he saw, that I have no bag. At least three or four. Drei, the boy tells his mother and immediately turns to go. The taxi driver is tapping Cleaver's elbow. Fifty euros, he says, in English. It seems excessive, but how can I ask to consult the meter? One of the card players darts the new arrival a knowing glance. Out of habit, Cleaver starts to ask for a receipt, then says, Nein, das macht nichts, and hands the man fiftyfive euros. Until he spoke, he had no idea he knew the expression.
On a series of ledges and tables up three flights of wooden stairs and creaking landings, there are more porcelain dolls, dressed in the traditional peasant costumes of at least a century ago, their hard bright faces beaming, their glassy blue eyes wide open, as Cleaver labours upward, breathing heavily, led by the handsome woman, past her best. Only a foot or two from his face are her long brown socks, green slippers. He can smell them. He finds the stairs hard going, steeper than home. On the third-floor landing there is a huge old dolls' house, perhaps five feet by four by four. White and pink, porcelain faces beam out of all the windows. The light in the stairwell is dim and yellow and the dolls' frilly clothes seem musty. The wall is clad with vertical strips of dark wood and a splintery old scythe has been hung between drawn curtains. Cleaver smiled. In many ways it really is a shame there is no camera.
But to the eminent man's surprise there is a smart television in his room with an impressive remote. How impressive it would be, he thinks, to say, No, take it away! I'm through with TV. A bait I must not rise to. As he is trying to get his breath back, the woman has already started speaking. She is talking very rapidly. She gestures here and there. Why is she doing this when she knows he can't understand? She is pointing to a door further along the corridor, showing him towels, repeating things she has said a hundred times before. She is doing her duty regardless of his ability to understand. But now the word Frühstück does ring a bell. Heißes Wasser, the woman waggles a finger. Noch nicht. Then she was gone.
Here I am then. Cleaver lay down on the bed. He is wearing a leather coat, a jacket, pink shirt and lemon tie, dark trousers. When he left the house that morning, he could perfectly well have gone to the studios and withdrawn his resignation. Was there anyone who was anyone who had not begged him to change his mind? And that was only yesterday. Think it over, Michaels insisted. For Christ's sake! The room was damp. It hasn't been heated. No one was expecting guests. You're a fat pig, Cleaver announced, hands folded on his stomach. A man of your girth, he spoke the words out loud, ought to create his own warmth. The room is quite large, but largely empty and dusty. How my father loved to rhyme the words girth and mirth, his elder son had written. Cleaver has no reason to open the wardrobe and drawers. What's the view from the window? He gets off the bed. Nothing but a narrow alley, a facade without a window. Turning round, he notices yet another doll sitting on the chest of drawers in a puddle of dusty frills; its face is set in that same changeless expression of blank complacency. The eyes are blue and wide and unblinking.
Cleaver shivers. Here we are then, he repeats and lies down on the bed again. The one blanket is definitely damp. Turning on his side, he becomes aware of his mobile phones. I can finally lose weight, he thought. Lose touch and tension, unwind. The fallout from the interview had been considerable. He took the phones out of his pocket and laid them on the bedside table. Not to mention his son's book. A pine surface. All the furniture in the room is untreated pine. Or ash, or birch perhaps. Cleaver knows nothing about wood. To be quite consistent, I shouldn't even have brought a phone, he reflects. On the other hand, one could hardly become a saint over night. Is there any signal up here in the mountains? he wondered. He smiled and shook his head, but then deliberately succumbed to a different temptation. He stood up, walked over to the TV set, clicked on the power and picked up the remote.
Settling back on the bed, he was aware his feet were cold. How can one be so fat and have cold feet? A man was taking a microphone into a studio audience. At once Cleaver felt anxious. He checked his watch. At this very moment one of his two stand-ins would be in make-up. Have I really left? After making mincemeat of the President of the United States, after exploding the obscene assurance of the world's most powerful man? At the acme of my career? He watched the presenter push the microphone towards a pretty, pouting mouth in a convenient aisle seat. Cleaver has no doubt that the girl has been placed there on purpose. She begins to speak, urgently, confidently, in German. They must have a camera tracking down the aisle from the back of the studio to pick up the presenter's nods. Standard fare. The egregious man is agreeing. Cleaver has no idea what they are talking about. Something serious, he guesses. Suddenly everybody is laughing. An overhead camera pans. People always laugh together. The lighting is a little harsh, Cleaver decides. An isolated laugh is an embarrassing thing. The studio has olive-green seats, orange screens, matt black fittings. Very German colours. Don't all German subway stations, Cleaver remembers, have green and orange wall tiling? He changes channel. An earnest and voluptuous woman is reading the news in Italian. Cleaver listens. She is deploying the same rigid patterns of cadence, he observes, the same sudden extravagant emphases, at once routine and dramatic, of which he himself is such a master. But this is an old observation. He has noticed the same things in French, a language he understands, and in Spanish, a language he doesn't. Everything must be urgent, yet the routine confidence of its delivery reassuring.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cleaver"
Copyright © 2011 Tim Parks.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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