Whatever this is, it started when Nicky Slopen came back from the dead.
The man who walked into my shop that day was solidly built, bearded, and had his head shaved almost to the scalp, but he knew my old nickname. He shuffled up to the counter and greeted me by it. "No one's called me that for years," I said.
"It has been years," he said. "It's me. Nicky."
There was a rush of awkwardness as I flanneled to cover the fact I didn't know him, and then a much more unpleasant sensation when he said his last name.
"I heard you were . . ." I couldn't bring myself to say it. "Is this some kind of joke? Because I don't appreciate it."
"Calm down, Sukie, it's really me," he said.
For a moment I just didn't believe him, but then he told me things that only he knew, things we'd said to each other, and gradually I saw that it was him. His eyes had a familiar intensity, and when he said my name, it had the same shape in his mouth that it had always had.
So of course I apologized: I was flummoxed, must have mixed him up with someone else. We had a laugh about it: reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, that sort of thing. For over an hour all we did was chat about old times. Weekday mornings are so quiet in the shop that I generally use them for stocktaking and dealing with invoices.
When I signed the lease five years ago, I joked to Ted that I was staking my financial future on the existence of an innate human impulse that drives visitors to pretty market towns to stock up on butter dishes, preserving jars, and other kitchen paraphernalia. So far it's been a gamble that's worked; at least, financially. That impulse does exist, and as Ted said, it seems to be countercyclical. It's even drawn a few old friends to the shop unexpectedly, and Nicky's visit felt like one of those: simultaneously warm and slightly awkward.
There was a clumsiness about him, a laboriousness in his movements that made me think he might have had a stroke, and a kind of neediness to his recollections that suggested he was going through tough times; no wedding ring, and I didn't ask about Leonora. He commiserated about my marriage and cooed over my pictures of Babette. He didn't have any of his own two, but men often don't, and he seemed a little choked when he talked about them.
We ate pad Thai from the takeaway sitting on boxes in the stockroom and then when a coach party showed up he slipped away, promising to stop by again when he was in the area. The childminder called just as he was going, so we didn't get to say goodbye properly and I was too preoccupied to take his e-mail. That evening I searched his name on the Internet. That's when I found his obituary.
It wasn't enormously long, but then he wasn't yet forty, and still he'd made it into the "Lives Remembered" section of The Telegraph, complete with a picture of him as I had known him at university: with that tall, spare frame that always seemed to typify a certain vanishing English body shape, even though his mother was actually Dutch.
Dr. Nicholas Slopen, who died last Friday aged 39, was a scholar whose inspirational teaching style was matched by his outstanding abilities as an editor and critic. The first two volumes of the revised Oxford edition of the Letters of Samuel Johnson compiled under his guidance have been acclaimed as definitive. The third and final volume will be published later this year.
Nicholas Slopen was born in Singapore in 1970 and raised in South London. He showed academic promise at a very early age, winning a Queen's Scholarship to Westminster and subsequently going on to Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied under the renowned scholar Ronald Harbottle.
A fluent speaker of five languages, including Russian and Dutch, Slopen achieved the rare distinction of coauthoring two papers with Harbottle while still an undergraduate. Though Slopen's relationship with Harbottle was strained by the latter's championing of the controversial poet Matilda Swann, he always regarded Harbottle as a friend and mentor.
After studying for a time at Yale, Slopen accepted a post at University College London, where his work, both as a teacher and as a critic, was marked by a warm and idiosyncratic engagement with the texts, while still upholding the highest standards of scholarship. Jesting at Truth, his 1998 study of Augustan satire, was regarded as a landmark. Reviewing the first volume of the Johnson Letters in the Times Literary Supplement, Darcus Millhouse acclaimed it as "a gift for the ages."
He is survived by his wife, the pianist Leonora Kazemzadeh, and their two children.
Well, what to make of that? The thing gave me a creepy feeling. He didn't look the same — which of us did? — but there was no doubt in my mind that the man I'd seen was him. When you've known someone the way we knew each other, you just know. And yet the evidence of the obituary was right in front of me.
Reading it over, I was struck by what a lot he'd achieved, and also reminded why the two of us were ultimately badly matched. I was an anomaly at Downing, a state-school girl who thought Goethe was pronounced "Go-eath," and who got mixed up between China and Japan. On the few occasions I met his mother I could tell he was tense in case I said something stupid. It's odd, I suppose, for me to have a Cambridge degree and yet feel intellectually insecure, but that's how intimidating she seemed.
He won a fellowship to Yale at the beginning of our final year. He wouldn't take it up for another ten months, but I was hurt because he seemed to have written me out of his future. I ended things with him, hoping, I think, to force some acknowledgment from him that I would be part of his plans. I knew from our friends that it hurt him, but he took it stoically, like some bitter but necessary medicine. We hardly spoke that whole year, but we went to the May Ball together, because the previous year he'd promised he'd take me, and he was a man of his word. He'd started seeing someone else by then. My memory of the evening is shot through with a kind of sadness: that feeling I had perpetually when I was twenty-one that I was on the wrong side of the door to where the fun and laughter were. And I suppose I was still a little in love with him. But after graduation, we slipped out of each other's lives. We exchanged letters when his mother died. Then silence.
In the days that followed his showing up at the shop, I tracked down some old friends. A few had lost touch with Nicky altogether, but several had heard that he'd died and one said it was in a road accident. I didn't ask for the details. Something held me back from telling them about his visit to the shop. Everywhere I checked, the story was the same. University College London was even setting up a memorial fellowship named after him. But Nicky wasn't dead, and it seemed as though only he and I knew it.
The only way I could make sense of it was to assume that Nicky had got into some kind of trouble and taken a desperate decision to run away from it. It was completely out of character for him, but no other explanation fitted the facts. I knew I hadn't seen a ghost. He was too material for that.
And besides, I think men, even the good ones, are more apt to cut and run than we are. Ted walked out when Babette was six months old; he said he'd found someone who could make him happier than I could. This woman turned out to be a twenty-four-year-old Italian translator he'd met at a convention in Düsseldorf. That miserable period coincided with the date of Nicky's death, which might explain why it didn't make more of an impression on me. All the bad news got rolled up together in one big indigestible lump.
It was almost a year before I saw him again. I was closing up the shop at the end of one of those short December days, rushing because the book group was meeting at my house that evening. Just as I was about to leave, I remembered that it was Kath's birthday. I unlocked the front door and went back in to get her one of the ceramic Seletti jugs shaped like a milk carton. Sleet was rattling against the shopfront. I grabbed some wrapping paper and a bag to keep it all dry. When I turned round there was a dark shape in the doorway. I froze. The jug slipped out of my hand and smashed on the floor.
"Sukie?" he said.
I felt a little breathless. For an instant, the last twenty-odd years vanished like a trick of the light: no Leonora, no Ted, no kids, no break-ups and false starts, no aging, only the two of us in the half-dark just like the first time I kissed him in Grantchester Meadows.
Nicky stepped out of the shadows. He looked much worse than when I'd last seen him: unshaven, tired, and badly dressed, but also more like his old self; he'd lost weight and his face had some of its shape back.
He told me he needed a place to stay. I explained about the book group and warned him that Babette was waking a lot in the night, but he didn't look like he had many other options. He sagged into the passenger seat like an old man.
From Ludlow to Barbrook is a twenty-minute drive, assuming you don't get stuck behind a tractor or a tourist. Nicky ignored my questions and didn't seem in any mood to talk. I found myself filling the silence by chattering on about my day, but by the time we got to Cleehill I couldn't pretend anymore. I pulled over just beyond the pub. The locals call it the Kremlin because they claim it's the highest point between there and the Urals, and in the old days the jukebox used to pick up Radio Moscow. The rain had stopped. The moon was out and beyond the hills we could make out the vague orange glow of Birmingham. I turned to Nicky and asked him what was going on.
"It's a long story," he said. "I was in the Maudsley for a while."
"Studying?" For some reason, I assumed it was a college.
"Sectioned," he said. And then by way of explanation: "It's a loony bin outside Croydon."
Hailstones pounded on the roof of the car. We'd have to drive home the long way round, because the ford would be too dangerous to cross.
"Does Leonora know you're alive?"
"The Nicky she knew is dead." He said it matter-of-factly, with no real venom, but the hopelessness of it shocked me. And in the yellow rays of the Kremlin's outside light, his teeth looked crooked and broken. Suddenly, it struck me that he was, after all, really a stranger, and I was seized by a panicky feeling.
There was something unpleasant about his body in the seat next to me; it seemed oddly bulbous, like an overripe fruit. He smelled a bit sharp and foxy and I wondered when he'd last washed. "Things have been difficult for me lately, Sukie," he said. Without the reassurance of his familiar eyes, even his voice seemed rougher and strange. "I don't want to drag you into it. I just need a place to stay for a night. It won't be much longer. This carcass is finally letting me down." His voice trailed off and he lapsed into silence. The effort of speaking had exhausted him.
"I've got some of Ted's clean clothes that you can take, and you can eat and have a bath, but you can't stay," I said. If I had lived alone, I would have chanced it, but I couldn't have him sleeping under the same roof as Babette.
Nicky just nodded. In that moment, I felt myself relent a little. He seemed so beaten down, and I remembered how tamely he'd acquiesced when I chucked him; not, I think, because he didn't care, but because that stoicism was part of his nature. It maddened me at the time, because I felt so sorry for myself that he was leaving; now I just felt sorry for him.
The book that night was by Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I was a little distracted, wondering about the best way to get Nicky back to Ludlow and if I should offer to pay for a B and B. He sat in an armchair at one side of the living room, looking sick and hopeless, even after a bath and change of clothes. I could tell that his being there was making the others uncomfortable; it was making me uncomfortable. It didn't help that none of the others had liked the book. Ordinarily, we would have chatted about it for five minutes and then wandered off onto something else, but Nicky's presence made us self-conscious and we dutifully talked about the book much longer than we wanted to.
Louise was the only one who was openly critical of Tolstoy's book. It wasn't her cup of tea at all. She was hostile to all those canonical male writers anyway, and she was also fond of saying that the first rule of good writing is "Show, don't tell"; she said Tolstoy didn't appear to have grasped this. Me, I liked the book. There's something of Ivan Ilyich in most men, I think, the way they shut down and turn robotic in middle age. It reminded me of Ted somehow and the way he'd become when we moved to Shropshire: forty, panicking inwardly, throwing himself into work and hobbies, and then this affair that had midlife crisis written all over it. I was going to say this, but it struck me that it might sound like a reproach to Nicky. Whatever he'd been up to — and I didn't want to know — made Ted look like Father of the Year.
In my childhood, there was famously a British politician, John Stonehouse, who faked his own death to escape debts or marriage, or possibly both. He left a pile of clothes on a beach in Florida to make it look as though he'd drowned and then flew away to Australia to start a new life with his mistress. I understand the impulse to make a fresh start. That's why I came up here to open the shop. But to lie about your death — there's a level of deceit and desperation in that which made me wonder whether I knew Nicky at all.
Glancing over at him, I thought how different he looked from the man I'd known. He was so old and weary. Then I noticed he was struggling to stand up. He was gripping the arms of the chair and his mouth was open and — shame on me for remembering this, but this is how it was — a big string of dribble was hanging from his lower lip. He managed to lift himself just clear of the seat, then keeled over on the floor. I got his shirt off and pumped his chest while Kath called an ambulance.
There was the strangest smell on him — like pear drops, but not as pleasant. Also, he had tattoos, clumsy ones, which, if you knew how squeamish he was about needles, made no sense at all. After a couple of minutes he was breathing on his own again and his eyes opened. His lips regained some of their color. He was whispering something, but I couldn't make it out. Then he went again. This time we took turns to do CPR on him, but he was unconscious when the ambulance arrived. Kath stayed with Babette and I followed them back to Shrewsbury in my own car. There was a crash team waiting for them outside the hospital, but they'd given up trying to resuscitate him by the time I got there.
He had some money in his pockets and a coach ticket from Carlisle, but no identification. I told them who he was, and the doctor wrote Nicky's name on the medical certificate and the cause of death as cardiac arrest. They left the body in their mortuary for Leonora to collect.
It turned out that Leonora was on holiday with the children at the time, and it took them a few days to get hold of her. When they reached her, she was, understandably, frosty. Her husband had been dead for months, she told them. And she faxed over the death certificate to prove it.
Exactly a week after Nicky died, two police officers dropped by the shop. I made two cups of tea in the back room and as I came back with them, I glimpsed the page of a notebook the younger one was holding. He'd written dead white male in a mixture of lowercase and capitals and underlined it twice. In retrospect, I see I should have been on guard from then.
They explained there was confusion over the dead man's identity and they were trying to establish who he was so they could release the body to his relatives for burial. I told them that as far as I was concerned he was Nicholas Slopen. They asked me why I thought that, and I mentioned John Stonehouse and my assumption that Nicky had been running away from something.
Up to then, it had felt like a friendly chat, but at that point they became very aggressive. The older of the two policemen whipped out these awful autopsy photos from an envelope he was carrying and pushed them in my face. He said that Nicky would have to be Harry Houdini to be alive after an accident like this. He shouted that Nicky had been dead for months and I should think about the pain I was causing his widow and his children.
They clearly thought I was a troublemaker: some crazy abandoned woman fixated on an old ex-boyfriend, tormenting Leonora with my fairy tales about her dead husband.
I was shaken by the photos, by their obvious hostility, by Nicky's reappearance and death, and I didn't have the stomach to argue with them. I capitulated. I said I hadn't seen him for almost twenty years and that I must have been mistaken.
Their aggression surprised me, but in retrospect, I see it shouldn't have. It's baffling to have the laws of physics subverted. Dead men don't go wandering round the Midlands looking up ex-girlfriends. And behind the woman who says they do is an uncomfortable archetype. It felt like those policemen wanted to stick me on a ducking stool or burn me at the stake.
"You don't actually know anything," the older of the two policemen had said every time I had tried to explain why I'd drawn the conclusions I had. And part of me was relieved to be able to agree with him.
So that's how they left it. Officially, the man who died on my living room carpet remains unidentified to this day. They preserved some DNA and cremated the rest of him.
Two months after Nicky died, I discovered that Babette had been posting her tiny rice cakes down the back of the sofa. We've had a rodent problem in the past here, so I went into overdrive trying to clear the place up. Sure enough, she'd been doing it for a while and I had to pull the cushions off everything to sort it out. Under the chair where Nicky had been sitting during book group, I found a tiny flash memory stick that I didn't recognize. I stuck it into my computer to see what it was. It didn't cross my mind that it would have anything to do with Nicky until I started reading it.
What follows is the text just as I found it.
I don't think a day has gone by when I haven't thought about Nicky's visits and asked myself why he came to me, particularly that second time. He must have known how close he was to his last hours. My feeling as I've got older is that human motivation is more opaque and more contradictory than we like to admit. But I've come to the conclusion that Nicky left that flash drive here on purpose; that he wanted someone to find it and make its contents public. I believe that Nicky felt a genuine connection to me and for that reason he entrusted me with his story.
Susanna Laidlaw- Robinson
Excerpted from Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux, published in February 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2013 by Marcel Theroux. All rights reserved.