Avoidance Of Doubt
Before my mother died she
wondered if her pancreas
had absorbed the life-long
anger she failed to shower
upon my father. His lover
was not mentioned, nor
the daughter - my half-sister -
who was and was not part
of our family. At that time
the lover and her daughter
did not exist in my mind
- they materialised after
the flames swallowed Mum.
I was unresponsive to her
desire to blame Dad for
a cancer which assumed
the mantle of Grim Reaper.
Instead I thought of her acts
of non-love: the hammer,
the damage to Dad's desk;
the beef liver that reddened
his face when she came over
all spontaneous. So I told her
I doubted emotions could be
wholly responsible for illness.
We did not speak of it again.
Monte Carlo Casino is like no other place on earth, combining glamour and deceit in equal measures. It attracts the rich and the greedy and that is where my skill was essential. I watched the croupiers and the clients; no one was above suspicion, because money is magic in that world.
Last Spring I lost my job. It happened like this. In May, after the Cannes Film Festival, we were full every evening. I strolled through the Chambres Privees paying my respects to the regulars I knew.
There was Marcel, an Italian gigolo who made a living from dowagers with money to burn. He sat next to a frail old lady who studied the roulette wheel as if it was a sick friend. There was Count Fosco, no one knew his real name, but he had money and we liked him. Then, an Englishman called Bentley who sat at the same baccarat table each night and caused a row if someone took his place, and there were several others who gave no trouble and kept the Casino in funds.
But I noticed two new faces among the regulars. Of course, new faces appear every evening, but these were special. He was a tall figure in an impeccable tuxedo; his hair was black and swept back from his forehead into a neat bunch behind his head. He had the eye of matador, keen and brilliant black, with an edge of danger in the corner of his eye. Standing at roulette table Number Three, he watched the ball on every spin as it dropped into place.
She sat far away at the other end of the table, but every man there was entranced. She wore a short evening dress of some indefinable blueish colour, evidently Haute Couture. She perched on the edge of her seat and every time the coup finished, she leant forward so that her gleaming blonde hair framed her profile. Her skin was pale and smooth, her poise immaculate and when she smiled, her sapphire blue eyes lit up with an innocent delight which radiated across the room as if we were all to share her joy.
I watched him with interest. He played the odds/evens spots, which is unusual because although they came up frequently, they pay just evens and lack the excitement of the individual numbers. Even so, he leant forward at most spins and placed high stake chips on the table. My instincts warned me that he was worth watching. Sure enough, after a few coups I saw what he was up to.
People crowd round as the winning numbers are called and whenever his even numbers won, he leant forward among the crowd and deftly added a high value chip to his pile before the croupier paid out. We call it "tophatting."
I moved to a place where I could reach him without drawing attention to myself and touched his arm.
"May I ask you for a minute of your time, Monsieur?"
He looked down on me and raised an eyebrow.
"Certainly," he said, "but I have two more coups to play before I have finished."
He turned away from me and I admired his sang-froid in what was a difficult situation. I let him finish and then gently guided him to a corner of the room where we were unobserved.
"May I know your name Monsieur?"
He fixed me with a dark look and I knew there was going to be trouble. He pushed me away and began to shout. This is a frequent ploy used by cheats, they hope, by causing a scene, to embarrass the Casino and make an exit. I gripped his arm and signalled to one of the pit inspectors to help me. Between us we marched him to the Cashiers office; he struggled and shouted all the way. The room was in an uproar. Everyone, both at roulette and baccarat stared at the scene and for a minute, play stopped everywhere.
By the time we reached the Office, the handsome gambler gave up his tantrum and stood quietly lighting a Turkish cigarette from gold lighter. He said nothing but I saw that dangerous glint in his eye. We went through the usual procedure, which I need not bore you with, took his winnings -banned him for life -photographed him and sent him on his way.
As he left, he waved and sauntered into the balmy night as if he had enjoyed a good evening's entertainment. When I went back into the hall, play had resumed and all was normal. The regulars exchanged knowing glances with me and I shrugged my shoulders in mute acknowledgement. Then I noticed the beautiful girl had gone. Just a hint of her perfume remained at the place where she had sat.
"Everything ok?" I asked Max, the croupier. He nodded and continued play. It was only in the early hours of the morning the scam came to light. While we were dealing with the dark haired man, someone had raided the coffre-that is the croupier's till - and taken chips to a value of 105,000 Euros.
Next morning, the Director invited me to his office. He sat squarely in wide leather chair and beckoned me to stand before his desk. Signor Fratelli is a large man and well connected. Bedside him stood a man in dark shades wearing a cheap beige suit. I had never seen him before at the Casino. He said nothing but chewed a toothpick.
"Let me understand what has happened."
Fratelli did not use my name but stared at me with his dark ringed eyes. His face had an unhealthy pallor as if he never saw the sunlight. His lips were moist and and he wiped them occasionally with a yellow silk handkerchief.
"You were on duty last night and got involved with a cheat. Is that right?"
"Yes," I said," you can see my report."
"But there is nothing here about the real loss, is there?"
His eyes focussed on me with an intense stare.
"Well, I didn't see how it happened and I doubt if I was in the room at the time."
The beige man stirred in his chair and smirked.
"What's your job then?" He said, "cloakroom attendant?"
"Shut your mouth!" Fratelli silenced him and turned to me.
“I want you and the table staff out of here and away from the Casino."
"What have I done wrong? You can’t sack me like that."
"You slipped up and that's that."
He looked away from me as if the matter was over and began to shuffle papers on his desk. The other man moved forward and threw his toothpick away. I noticed the bulge in his shabby suit jacket and decided to leave. He grinned at me and held the door open.
I said nothing and when I left the Casino, I went down the front steps onto the square to show I was not ashamed. The centre flowerbeds bloomed with oleander and hibiscus, scenting the air and disguising the foul exhaust fumes from the incessant traffic. I looked around and shook the dust of that life from my feet.
For the avoidance of doubt, I copied the key my darling Yvette used when she unlocked the table coffre. My brother Bruno lives in Porto Fino, but we still live in Beausoleil just above Monte Carlo.
It isn’t every day that a peer of the realm asks to see me urgently.
Let’s call him Sir Kenneth; a long-standing member of the board of Trustees at the British Museum.
We met in my office close to the main conservation room on the first floor of the British Library.
He lifted a plastic folder from the leather briefcase he was carrying. It contained a single yellowed manuscript sheet and he placed it on the desk in front of me.
‘What do you think?’ he said. I pulled a pair of cotton gloves from the dispenser and lifted out the sheet. A sour smell of old paper, mouldy particles of dust; time itself, filled my nostrils.
‘Italian blackletter script. Late twelfth century. The paper is pulped linen, probably from Moorish Spain or Morocco.Where did you get it?’
‘It arrived, addressed to the Board, in a repackaged Amazon cardboard box yesterday. Sender unknown.’
‘Has anyone translated it, yet?’
‘Only the chairman and I have seen it. My Latin’s a bit rusty these days.’
The writing was miniscule but immaculate.
‘I’ll read it to you’ I said.
'We followed the sound of a great crowd to the Hippodrome. Andronicus had been dragged from his jail by the mob, placed on an old camel and pelted with filth, beaten and stoned, then gouged with spikes, before the clubs of the crowd had finished him. His mutilated body was in full view, hanging from a rope attached to an ankle. Nearby, the Imperial Palace was being ransacked and in the turmoil, I was separated from my companions, and found myself pushed into a filthy side-street tavern.
Later that night a great brute, a mountain of a man with a thick beard and mass of curly black hair, pushed open the tavern door. A line of dried blood ran down his cheek to his wide chin and further spots and streaks of blood were splattered across his tunic. Two sweating ruffians stood at his back, daggers in their belts, sharing a skin of reeking arak. The giant brandished a gold frame containing a written document and addressed the whole tavern:
“Any man who can read this, keeps the frame.” His eyes were restive as a hawk’s as the framed parchment was passed around. I recognized the writing as Aramaic. The giant thrust his face into mine. His breath smelled of fish and cheap arak. I read the first line aloud:
“Greetings to you Abgarus; you are happy forasmuch as you have believed on me, whom ye have not seen.” He almost crushed me as he bent forward to peer closely at the parchment, but his blood-stained face suddenly seemed less fearsome.
“Go on,” he commanded. The writing was difficult to follow by candle-light, but I held my finger to the letters and continued steadily:
“For it is written concerning me, that those who have seen me should not believe on me, that they who have not seen might believe and live. As to that part of your letter, which relates to my giving you a visit…”
“Enough!” shouted the giant and pulled the frame from my grasp. Then, delicately for such a big man, he pulled off the wooden backing, extracted the parchment, tossed the gold frame onto my lap and hurried from the inn, followed by his henchmen, to the relief of all present.
An old priest asked to see the frame. I passed it to him.
“Fine gold; doubtless looted from the Palace,” he said.
I asked if he knew anything more and he said:
“Abgarus was King of Edessa in the first century.” And then asked me, “Were you able to read more of the letter?”
I shook my head. “Abgarus was a leper,” he said “He heard of a healer in Syria who was said to cure lepers. He wrote and asked if the healer would come to see him and offered to pay his expenses.”
“This letter was the healer’s reply?”
“Yes, it was,” said the priest.
Today, charlatans sell chips of animal bone, claiming they are the finger bones of saints and can perform miraculous cures by their touch. Fragments of blackened firewood are sold as pieces of the True Cross. I always laughed at the naivety of people who buy such rubbish. More foolish still are noblemen and princes who finance the producton of glass cases set in gold reliquaries but the trade does little harm. Nonetheless, as I sat in that Greek tavern, I began to understand the emotion which inspires this behaviour.
“And a few years later, Thaddeus, a pupil of the disciple Thomas came to Edessa and cured Abgarus of his leprosy.”
“Doubting Thomas?” I asked and he nodded.
I left the inn before dawn. The giant was lying asleep in the gutter, his henchmen and the skin of arak vanished. An evil looking knife was tucked into a leather belt across his chest. As I stepped over him, I was seized by temptation and knelt down. When I stood again his snoring abruptly ceased and I held my breath as he moved onto his side, then fastened my jacket and crept away.’
And there the two sheets of tiny Latin script ended.
‘That’s it,’ I said. Sir Ken was holding a second plastic sheet in his hand.
‘What’s that?’ I asked, but immediately felt a lightness in my chest.
‘Again, I was hoping you’d tell me,’ said Ken. ‘It arrived in the same box as the manuscript you’ve just read.’
He handed me the sheet and my hands were trembling as I placed it on my desk and examined it under the ultra-violet light.
‘I once found similar vellum sheets at a Parchmenteer’s shop on the site of the ancient Jerusalem marketplace. Some skins with the hair scraped away were in a wooden pail under a heap of lime powder and so were well preserved. Both the language and handwriting are different. It could be Ancient Aramaic.’
‘Can you translate it?’
‘What about here in the library. Is there anyone who might be able to?’
‘Ancient Aramaic? Well, that would be Deborah Holt. I could ask her. She always goes back to her flat in Holborn at lunchtime. Feeds her cat I think. We might just about catch her though.’
Deborah Holt was already in her coat when we reached her office but she was happy to oblige us. I uploaded the mobile image I’d taken onto her computer and she bent over the screen, but after a few seconds stood upright and began buttoning her coat again.
‘If this is this your idea of a joke, Ken, it’s not very funny.’
‘Not at all, Deborah,’ said Ken. Why would I joke with you?’ He looked to me with a puzzled expression. ‘What does it say, Deborah?’ he pleaded. ‘Won’t you read it for us?’
‘I don’t need to read it,’ she said. ‘I know the text by heart,’ and she began to recite. ‘ “Greetings to you Abgarus; you are happy forasmuch as you have believed on me, whom ye have not seen.”
I sat heavily into one of the chairs, mumbling to myself. The unknown author of the manuscript must have lifted the letter from the jacket of the giant in Constantinople. Why didn’t he tell us in the manuscript?
‘Constantinople?’ said Deborah. ‘The original of this letter was last seen in Constantinople eight hundred years ago. Ken Milne reached into his briefcase and lifted the vellum sheet out.
‘Could this be the original?’ Ken said.
Deborah sat down alongside me, her face suddenly pale.
‘It only appeared yesterday’ said Ken. ‘ How can you know the words by heart, Deborah?’
‘Because I’m Christian, Ken and I specialise in the Ancient Languages of the Middle East. Anyone who does knows the text of this letter.’
‘A Christian text? I wish one of you would explain what on earth this is all about.’
‘Be patient, Ken,’ I said. ‘We haven’t even read it all yet. Please carry on Deborah, but I know the next line.
“For it is written concerning me,”I recited, "that those who have seen me should not believe on me, that they who have not seen might believe and live.” I know it from the story of Doubting Thomas.
‘Correct young man,’ said Deborah. ‘That’s exactly what it says and if this is not some sort of elaborate hoax then you have found the treasure of the century. Don’t you know how it ends?’
‘I don’t. The manuscript doesn’t tell us.’
‘You should have googled it. The supposed text is well known.’ Ken Milne spoke up.
‘Deborah, might I ask you to finish the letter?’
‘Of course, Ken.’ She turned back to the screen.
"As to that part of your letter, which relates to my giving you a visit, I must inform you that I will soon fulfill all the ends of my mission in this country. Once I have completed this mission I will visit you and if for some reason I cannot come will send to you forthwith one of my companions to visit you and cure your disorder and bring life to you and those around you.” Deborah turned back to Ken.
‘Can I see the original please?’ and Ken, still baffled, handed it to her.
She lifted it from the polythene sheet and holding it with her right hand, stroked the surface gently with the fingers of her left.
‘The DNA in the goatskin they used was much the same DNA in the goats that roam Jerusalem today. You could do DNA testing on it and find the age of this sheet by radiocarbon dating. For the avoidance of any doubt.’
‘Avoidance of doubt? Doubt about what?’ said Sir Ken.
Deborah tried to reply and words formed on her lips but she seemed unable to speak them. Tears began pooling in her eyes and I noticed the crucifix hanging from her neck for the first time. I said quietly:
‘Is it signed, Deborah?’ and she turned back to the screen.
‘Yes,’ she said, her words broken by a sob, ‘it is.
I placed a hand on her shoulder and Ken, frustrated and annoyed pleaded:
‘Signed by whom, for goodness sake?’