Chapter Twenty Three
So far as I could tell without my watch, it was about midnight. Following a short though scary helicopter flight, we were back at Birch Grove — now in one of the deeper cellars. A man held me by each of my arms. I stood handcuffed. About eight feet from me stood a ceramic vat of some dark liquid.
“It really was silly of you, Anthony, to try escaping,” Harold Macmillan said with a pitying leer. “I’m sure you’ll agree that no good came of it.” I gritted my teeth and looked back into his face.
“I’ll see you hang for this,” I snarled. Macmillan smiled and walked over to a wooden chair. He pulled the handkerchief from his breast pocket and carefully dusted the chair before sitting down.
“I don’t think, my dear young fellow,” he said in his most lugubrious voice, “you are in a position to see anyone hanged.” He shook the dust from the handkerchief and blew his nose.
“Pick it up and bring it over here,” Michael Foot barked at two other men. “Then just leave it. I can do all the rest myself.” He licked his lips as the small, naked corpse was carried across the room. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to pray. But Foot was now standing before me.
“Don’t try to imagine this is a dream, Dr Markham,” he said with soft delight. “This is reality. Everything else in your stupid life — the time you spent as a day boy in your minor public school, your furtive buggeries, your posing as an historian of petty note — all that and more was the dream. And you’ve just woken from it. Welcome to the real world.”
I looked past him to the pathetic young body. The boy had told me he was only sixteen. He’d read too many silly books. He’d believed too much in a country that never was what he thought it might become again. But he’d only been sixteen. I thought of his enthusiasm, his courage, the open, trusting look he’d given me when he asked for one of my cigarettes. I couldn’t think of any reason that would stand up in writing, but I felt a sudden wave sweep over me of self-loathing. If I couldn’t be blamed for his death, I was the cause. He might have thought he was dying for Ayn Rand. All I could think was how I should have sent him back to bed after he’d woken me, and waited, unaware of the truth, for what the morning would bring.
Suddenly — for all the world as if I’d been looking at things through the eyes of the narrator in a novel, I pushed myself closer to Foot and spat in his face. Shocked, he stepped back. He put up a hand and wiped the gob from his chin.
“You murdering bastard!” I shouted. “When they come to hanging you, I’ll beg to be the one who pulls the lever.” Foot held up his wet fingers and smiled. Then, without seeming to move, he stood closer and brought a knee up hard into my groin. As I gasped and sagged forward, he took hold of me and pulled me upright. He punched me viciously in the stomach, and then landed a blow on my left cheek. I would have gone down, but for the two men, who now held me tighter. Foot raised his fist again and looked ready to set about me in earnest.
“No violence, Michael — please!” Macmillan cried. He was back on his feet and was pulling Foot away from me. “We’ve had enough of that for one day, I’m sure you’ll agree. I really do want us all to think that we are — or can be — friends in this room.” He smiled at me and led Foot away. Foot glanced down at the body and a horrid look spread over his face.
“Bring the Indian boy forward,” he said to the men. “I want him to watch this. There’s nothing that a true historian wouldn’t want to see — once.” He turned and picked up a leather apron from a bench against the wall of the little room. He pulled it over his head, and reached for a pair of goggles, and next for a pair of gloves that covered his forearms. He stopped and thought, then took off the goggles and put his own wired spectacles back on. He stopped again and grinned. Beneath the apron had been a small box, about the size and shape of a self-charging television battery. Foot went back and stroked this. He looked shiftily at Macmillan, who was looking away. He covered the box with some sacking and turned his attention back to his apron.
He pointed at the men. “Hold him back a few feet,” he ordered. “When I say, bring him right forward.” His next words were covered with an involuntary giggle. “Take a few deep breaths, Dr Anthony Markham of the LSE,” he now sneered. “I’ll tell you when to hold your breath. You don’t have to, of course. But I’ll advise you to hold your breath when I say.”
He giggled again and bent down. He put his arms about the body and lifted it upright. Eyes still open, though dull in the light from the single overhead bulb, the head lolled sideways. The arms hung limply down. With surprising strength, Foot lifted the body high in what looked a parody of a lover’s embrace. Bending carefully forward, and now moving slowly, so as not to disturb the dark surface of its contents, he lowered the body into the vat. Pulled by its own weight, the body slid down into the liquid until all was hidden up to the chest. He put a hand on each shoulder and pushed down. The body now disappeared but for the neatly cropped hair and the very pale forehead.
“Sulphuric acid is ever such a wonderful substance,” Foot gloated at me. “But come forward, and look in while you can. In a moment, fumes will start to gather above the surface. After a few minutes, I regret we shall have to leave the room. But do look while you can. You can’t see it properly? Oh, that’s a shame, Dr Markham — Dr Anthony Markham — such a terrible shame. Still, shall I describe the acid’s action on a human body? It’s been in hardly a few seconds, but just look at this —” He took hold of the short hair and pulled the head up and let it fall onto the other shoulder. I nearly retched at the hissing, bubbling transformation of what had been clear skin.
“Yes, isn’t it beautiful?” he continued. “All over the body, skin will be shrivelling and splitting. In just a minute or two, the outer layers of skin will begin to slough off. Soon, the stomach muscles will sag and dissolve, and intestines will spool out to almost immediate dissolution. Give it another hour, and the bones themselves will come apart at their thinnest points. This head will then sink under its own weight into the depths of our forty gallon container.
“By morning, there will be nothing left — nothing identifiable, that is. There will be a few of the larger teeth and one or two fatty lumps that you’ll find floating on the cold surface of the now exhausted acid. Come the dawn, my men will decant what remains into smaller containers and take them up for pouring into the drains.
“Are you aware, my pisspoor biographer of Winston Churchill,” he asked with another giggle, “of the Latin phrase corpus delecti?” He paused for another giggle, then repeated the phrase, still in the unreformed pronunciation. “It means ‘body of evidence for the crime’. In bourgeois jurisprudence, a man cannot easily be found guilty of murder without a body. In this case there will be no body.
“Yes, Dr Anthony Richard Markham, First Class Honours from the LSE — a little acid rids us of this deed!” He stared up from the vat and looked straight at me. As he did so, the light caught the lenses of his spectacles and turned them to blank discs. It was as if there were no eyes behind them. But it was the impression of barely a moment. The fumes had now overspread the liquid, and a stray snake of the fumes had found its way close by Foot. He fell back in his most ghastly coughing fit yet. One of his men bent down and helped him to his feet, and then over to the chair where Macmillan had been sitting. Macmillan put his handkerchief up to his face and pointed with his free hand to have me led back from the overboiling vat. The visible fumes didn’t reach me. But the stink of bad eggs was unendurable. My captors let go of me, and a cloth was put in my hands. I reached up and pressed it over my mouth and nose. I thought I’d be led out of the cellar, but Michael Foot was up again and standing triumphantly before me.
“Get away from me,” I shouted through the cloth. “You’re fucking mad.”
“Mad?” he cried with mock astonishment. “Mad? Yes, I suppose I am mad. But Anthony, Anthony, you’ve seen nothing here to shock the firmer sensibility. Can you imagine the effect of my burning bath on a living body?” He laughed maniacally. “Yes, think of that. How else do you think Jones and Rutherford disappeared in Moscow without trace? Do you suppose that, all by themselves, the Russians would have been so daring with British subjects? Oh, you should have been with me in the main office of our Party Legation in Moscow. I led them in, claiming I needed help with the wording of a manifesto. I was so deferential — that class enemy I’ve just cleansed from the world had nothing on my manner then! Jones was in up to his waist before he realised what was happening. He splashed about and screamed a little. But he was dead almost before he knew he was suffering.
“It was Rutherford who was forced slowly and knowingly into the bath of pain. You should have seen the clothing dissolve from his body. You should have heard his squeals and then bellows of pain. You should have heard his desperate and prolonged attempts to negotiate. Even as his stomach burst, he was offering me sole leadership of the Party.”
Foot broke off for another long coughing attack. Now Macmillan took charge.
“Get everyone upstairs,” he snapped at the men as he walked past me to the door.
I drained the brandy glass in two gulps and reached for my cigarettes. The butler leaned forward to light it for me, then straightened again.
“Will that be all, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, Bellamy, that will be all,” Macmillan said, reaching for the decanter. “Thank you for waiting up. It is much appreciated.”
“Am I to understand, sir,” the butler asked again, “that young Edward will not be rejoining us?” I looked at the man. Was this some elaborate game? If so, was it for my benefit or theirs? Hard to say. Macmillan shook his head sadly and sipped at his brandy.
“Tell the other servants that young Edward has left us,” he said. “It was not what I should have wished, and I am sure he will be missed below stairs as much as above. But he will not be rejoining us.” The butler nodded. He went over to the fire and put on another log. He looked about the room and straightened a rug that I’d kicked aside as I was brought into the room. He walked slowly over to the door and closed it behind him. I was now alone with Macmillan in his study.
“Look, Anthony,” he said, “I know that our relationship has not developed as I might have wished it to. But I would urge you with all passion to put aside any conceptions you may have formed of me since our last conversation. Indeed, I’d even ask for some indulgence of dear Michael. I’ll not deny that, since his break with the Labour Party, he’s fallen into a set of rather unpleasant people. But he was a most distinguished President of the Oxford Union. And all those lost elections to Parliament — why, they’d sour anyone of his background.”
“Young Edward will not be rejoining us,” I said in a mocking impersonation of his own voice. “Is that how you write off one of your bum boys? ‘Young Edward will not be rejoining us’? Is that how you write off all your servants when Foot takes it into his mind to strangle one?”
“Dear me, Anthony, of course not,” came the smiled answer. “‘Bum boys’, as you well know, can be picked up for 7s.6d a go. A proper servant is much harder to find — especially in these modern days of prosperity.
“By the way, dear boy, I heard most of your speech to those Labour chappies. Would you care for a safe seat at the next election? I’ll need all the eloquent young men I can find once I’m in Downing Street.
“That assumes, I hardly need clarify, that I don’t let Michael murder you first.”