Life on the Suburban Fringe by S.R.Noss
Feature image courtesy of f.no at flickr – click here to see more of their work
Prologue: The Letter
Lake Geneva, Autumn, 2052
To whom ever finds this after I am gone…
The day has turned to grey. I’d forgotten how hard it is to write with only paper and pen. My hand aches and each time I pause I throw an envious glance over at my work case. Things would be a lot easier with my Think-Pad, but his instructions were specific; no technology of any kind, they can track what you write if you use it. I’m not used to work such as this, my language is that of the law, not the stylistic ebbs and flows needed for a tale of literature. But persevere I must, for his story is all that matters now.
I get up and go over to the window, pulling the netting aside to peer discretely out of the corner. The car is still there with its two men in it. They seem bored and disinterested but unable to leave. The passenger must be a smoker because a smatter of cigarette butts lay scattered within a finger flick of his own window. For more than a day they’ve been there now. In fact the one sat in the driver’s seat looks familiar the more I peek at him. I wonder if I saw him back at the bar. Did he follow me home after that or even from the Bertolina’s front door? I’m not sure.
The day is beginning to fade out. Twilight has begun to meander its mournful way through the drapes, making me feel like some medieval monk of old, hunched over a manuscript in his cell, struggling to see as the gloom unfolds. I try to hurry my pace once more for time is of the essence. I fear I haven’t much longer left. I scrunch up the piece of paper that I’ve been working on and loft it over my shoulder as I reach for a fresh sheet. Behind me the paper ball pile of unfinished drafts growth ever more…
…so once again I begin.
I start with the beginning of the end. I start with the death of my father. It’s hard to believe he is really gone. That realisation that you will never see them again is hard to accept. It makes you think a lot, that I know. Questions come and questions go; some remain unanswered. What has hit me in the last few weeks is just how little I really knew about my father. As children do we ever really know our parents as real people or merely the character they permit us to see? It is a question I am still struggling to answer, for the quiet bookish man I thought I knew was in reality, it would seem, very different indeed.
It has started to rain. Little pitter-pat droplets bounce against the window panes. I wager with myself which droplets will reach the bottom first, just as father and I used to do on half forgotten rainy days when I was small. I reach over and once again read the coroner’s report delivered first thing this morning. The local Chief Inspector is an old family friend, so the autopsy was done in double quick time. My main consolation is that it appears my father did not unduly suffer.
The coroner reported that death was due to natural causes, heart failure in this case, which was not unsurprising in a man of eighty-six. The only oddity noted was the lack of a G.I.M Chip in the body. This was the first time the coroner had a corpse without one and he was at a loss to explain why. A police inspector paid a call mid-morning to ask me the very same question but I couldn’t provide him with any answers for as far as I knew my father had Genetic Insurance just like the rest of us.
 Gene Identification Matrix Chip – we all have them after all, so it is odd my father never had one.
He had looked suspicious, perhaps wondering if we were members of some sort puritan opposition one hears of these days, but there was little I could do to help for it was as much a mystery to me as it was to him. My response didn’t seem to satisfy him but there was little he could do other than leave me a card with his details and ask me to get in contact if any new information came to light. I told him I would, but now I doubt that very much.
There was also an accompanying police report. It stated that my father had, on the testimony of his old housekeeper, risen early that day, taken a light breakfast (corroborated by the autopsy it was noted) and then, after he had dressed in his best suit, armed himself with a cane (for walking was no longer as easy as it once was) and informed his housekeeper that he would be going out to take the morning air.
A few hours later a young woman walking through the Jardin Anglais found him cold and gone. The location was poignant considering his origins. He was sat on a bench overlooking the Pont du Blanc, a look of contentment etched upon his face and in his hand he held a solitary pink English Rose, my mother’s favourite flower. Later his housekeeper, Mrs Cetout, reported that over breakfast my father had confessed to dreaming of my mother the night before and had mentioned it may be time to move on once again. She had paid little attention to the meaning of his words for my father had often threatened to up and leave the city he’d retired to. There is a part of me that treasures the idea that he had chosen to leave this mortal coil because my mother had finally called for him. Love is a powerful thing after all.
Yet despite the suddenness of his departure I find it hard to grieve for grief is not a new emotion for me. It is not the first time for my mother has already made the journey onwards some years ago after a long drawn out battle against cancer that had steadily eaten her body away until nothing but a husk remained. If the truth be told I did not cope well with her death and my way of coping was to abandon my father and move to Milan. In the interests of my career was my excuse but in all honesty I just could not deal with the way death affected my father so. Time and distance healed and lessened my pain but for my father life was never the same again. His heart was broken and I think that, deep down, he never came to terms with her loss.
My decision left a scar within our small family that couldn’t be healed and for a long time my relationship with my father worsened. Often my presence served only to remind him of what was no longer there and no matter how hard he tried resentment always lingered unsaid. To my mind he struggled on with life yet was never quite the same man again. It was if all the energy had been drained from within and life had become nothing more than routine. I suppose death was the ultimately a release for him.
For me it was only the beginning of a time where little made sense. For the man I thought I knew has slowly begun to reveal his secrets, so much so that I am beginning to wonder just how many lives my father led and how far the grief he showed was really for my mother or for something deeper and darker that he had lost.
When the news had come I immediately caught the fast train to Geneva from Milan. It had always surprised me that he of all people settled in a Corporation city. It just didn’t seem to fit with so many things he had said. But, after a lifetime of travels and travails, he had seemed happy enough to finally put down roots beside the melt waters of Lake Geneva, so who was I to question it.
Once there I contacted his lawyer, made myself as comfortable as I could in his house whilst being fussed over by Mrs Cetout and awaited summons for the reading of the will. In that time the coroner and police reports came and went then, almost a week after my arrival, the lawyer’s office responded and invited me in.
Monsieur Jean-Philip Bertolina, had been the family’s legal representative for as long as I could remember and, even though he had retired some years previously, still insisted on dealing with matters relating to his former clients. His son, Pascal, an old acquaintance of mine from our training days in the legal chambers of Strasbourg, had since taken over the family practice but was happy to allow his papa to dabble as he saw fit.
The reading of the will was scheduled for ten o’clock, the day after my father’s internment, at their offices close to the Pont du Mont Blanc. Pascal met me at the door with a look of condolence etched across his face. A few years had passed we last met and Pascal had clearly prospered. His waist line had expanded a few notches on his belt and his once thick head of hair was now thinner with grey flecks pepper-potted amongst the once lush black. He was dressed as impeccably as always in a dark Hugo Boss suit with shoes shined to a bankers gloss. He smiled and embraced me in that Italian way of greeting old friends; hands thumping against my back, voice emotional yet affectionate and eventually, with arm draped around my shoulder, he guided me into the office building.
The offices of Bertolina & Son comprised the fifth and sixth floors of a Bismarkian building which had been modernised extensively inside. The original dark and austere entrance hall had been transformed into a subtle vista of egg white walls and sleek Swedish teak. Where once a grand sweeping Victorian staircase dominated the lobby now stood a sleek chrome and glass elevator and it was into this that Pascal guided me.
He swished his hand across a scan pad and punched in the code for the sixth floor. We stood silently for a moment as our ascent begun, neither sure where to begin. It was Pascal who broke the silence.
‘Are you prepared for this Soli?’ he asked, ‘the reading of the will may not be as straight forward as you hoped.’
My brow furrowed. ‘What do you mean?’
He paused for a moment then was about to answer but thought better of it for the lift had come to a gentle halt and the doors parted to reveal a palm potted reception area. ‘Let’s just go in shall we?’ he replied, ushering me through the lobby towards the office doors beyond.
The doors led into Pascal’s office. Sat behind a grand Louis XIV desk was Bertolina Snr. He stood as we entered, a genuine look of condolence etched across his face. Seated to the left of him was a silver-haired woman, dressed in an expensive black dress with a slender string of creamy pearls around her neck. She gave of the air of a woman used to the finer things in life. Before Monsieur Bertolina could speak she rose from her chair and walked confidently towards me, hand outstretched.
‘You must be Solomon,’ she said matter of factly, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet at last.’ I took the proffered hand and grasped it. Her handshake was firm and the skin soft despite her years. ‘You’re probably wondering who I am’ she continued ‘My name is Madeleine,’ she paused for a moment ‘and I am your father’s mistress.’
I was at a loss as to what to say next. As I stood there I could have sworn I heard both Bertolina minds turning, assessing the possibility of what I would say next and how it could affect their days work. A few minutes must have passed as an awkward silence settled upon the room whilst I digested the news of my father’s secret mistress.
Eventually, wishing to hasten the slow start to the meeting, Madeleine nodded towards me and sat back down in her chair. She reached into her handbag and brought out a packet of French cigarettes. Without stopping to ask she lit one up and exhaled a cloud of pale blue smoke into the air. Then she looked around the room at the three men of us.
‘Clearly this information is news to young Solomon here.’ She waved a dismissive hand towards me. ‘So evidently that old so-an-so Martin failed to mention me at all. It is interesting to know I was such a hidden secret. Well gentleman, I am here now, the secret is revealed and I suggest we focus on business.’ She nodded to emphasis her point and then took another drag of nicotine.
Bertolina Snr cleared his throat from behind his son’s desk, indicated Pascal should sit beside him and then began to speak.
‘We are gathered here today to witness the last will and testament of Martin Barnaby Quinn, deceased as of the thirteenth of this month. As both parties requested by the deceased are now in attendance, we may begin. Before I continue, do either of you have anything you wish to say at this time?’
He paused to look at each of us in turn, head quizzically half cocked. I shrugged a no whilst Madeleine told him to get a move on. So as not to appear to be following her command, Bertolina Snr made a point of shuffling his papers before continuing.
‘In that case I shall read the will.’
At this point I will not bore you with the legality of my father’s will. It carried on for several pages, minutely detailing the intricacies of his estate and which elements would be left to whom. The crux of it was simple. Madeleine was granted ownership of the small apartment my father had purchased for her sometime before and would be provided with a generous income each month. The remaining capital and income from my father’s estate would go to me, as well as the house in Geneva along with the extensive library and art collection it contained. Suffice to say I was not left impoverished. In fact I was now decidedly wealthy, which came as something of a surprise because the impression my father had always given was that of a gentile bohemian academic, gently impoverished and living in frugal retirement. Clearly this was not the case.
With the will read Bertolina Snr placed his papers back onto his desk and leaned back into the chair, finger tips arched beneath his chin, waiting for one of us to respond. Pascal looked at quizzically, head tilted slightly to one side, waiting for me to speak. I did not and stayed as silent as Madeleine. He nodded and dutifully passed his father a further set of papers. Bertolina Snr perused them for a moment or two then laid them out onto the desk facing Madeleine and myself.
‘So, if there are no issues either regarding the deceased’s wishes, could I please ask you both to sign your agreement.’ His right hand waved over the cream coloured documents like a magician indicting authenticity to his audience.
Madeleine rose immediately and walked over to the desk. ‘I have no objection’ she said ‘it’s as he promised and I am happy with that.’ With that she signed her name with a theatrical flourish. ‘I take it that is all?’ Bertonlia Snr replied with a nod of his head. She turned back to her seat, picked up her handbag and made towards the door. As she reached it she paused and turned back to face the room. Her eyes focused solely on me.
‘No matter what you think of me Solomon you should not forget that your father was a good man, no matter what you may hear or find out.’ She then looked at the Bertolina’s. ‘Good day gentlemen’ she said and with that Madeleine swept out of the office door and, I hoped, out of my life forever.
With her exit the room fell awkwardly silent once again. Eventually Pascal coughed and this seemed to nudge Bertolina Snr out of his brief reverie. ‘Ah of course’ he said, his words slightly muffled as he reached down to open a drawer. I heard the crackle of paper being handled then he placed a large string tied package, wrapped in brown paper, on the desk. ‘The last element of our dear Martin’s estate,’ he said with a smile as he passed the parcel to me.
‘What is it?’ I asked feeling its weight in my hands. My name was written on the front in indelible black marker in my father’s handwriting. The older Bertolina shrugged his shoulders and told me he had no idea what the package contained, all he knew was that my father was most insistent that it be entrusted into my care and my care only. He emphasised this final point with a wag of a bony finger.
Once again Pascal coughed and the meeting was clearly at an end. The two Bertolina’s rose in unison from their chairs and escorted me back out into the lobby area. Pascal walked slightly ahead whilst I supported his father with my arm. Bertolina had grown frail since I had last seen him and walked only with the aid of a cane. As the three of us waited for the lift to arrive Pascal embraced me once again and made me promise to dine with him later that week. Old man Bertolina leant forward as if to shake my hand. The years had not dulled his bone crunching handshake.
‘They will not allow his story to be told you know,’ he whispered, ‘they will try and stop you. Be careful Soli, be very careful my boy.’ A ping announced the lift’s arrival and as the door’s swished open he smiled and tapped the package under my arm. ‘Take good care of what’s in there Soli, it’s a lot to be trusted with,’ and with that the lift opened and I said my goodbyes.
In all honesty I cannot tell you why I waited to open it. I walked off down the street and found myself ambling around Geneva for what felt like hours. The curfew had been lifted the year before yet people were still scurrying past me to get home before it got dark. Time steadily ticked by as I walked in a haze of conflicting thoughts, surprise and perhaps even mild shock. Like the waft of air that touched my face on leaving the building, the events inside had touched me so. Madeleine’s appearance had unsettled me and I wondered what other surprises were to come. What else did I not know about him and what else would I find? So, deep down, a part of me was scared to open the package for fear of what new revelations would be found inside.
Eventually I found myself sat in a small bar close to the city centre nursing a large whiskey. Darkness had fallen and the bar was unsurprisingly empty. After all, the Corporation could void your insurance if you drank non-verified alcohol. But then what did I care. I was rich enough now to not have to worry about such mundane things. Taking a deep breath and a long lug of Jack I undid the coarse string and peered tentatively inside. The first thing I pulled out was a scrap of paper, a note from my father to me. It simply said ‘Don’t read the contents like a bloody lawyer Soli, read them like a historian instead’. I laughed out loud and managed to startle two elderly gents sat across the bar. I raised my glass to them and returned my attention to the package before me.
On first impressions the contents were not as earth shattering as I had feared. The package contained five soft moleskin covered journals and an assortment of other papers, some crinkled with age, others fresh and recently written. They had the appearance of hastily scrawled notes and jottings with some parts underlined and others crossed out. I breathed a sigh of relief, downed the last of my whiskey and then beckoned the waitress to bring me another drink.
Once I began to read I realised what it was my father had left me. The journals were his diaries, chronicles of his earlier life before me; rewritten by the experienced author’s hand and they made for startling reading. The other papers were additions to the core story that unfolded, scribbled notes and drafted paragraphs towards the book that this package was clearly intended to be. The night drifted away as I read, my eyes fixed to the pages, compelling me to continue, to learn more about the father I had not known. Eventually the bar lights came on and the softly spoken waitress politely informed me it was time to leave. I gathered up my fathers papers and walked out into the night a wiser, more informed and slightly sadder man.
Something my father had once told me rattled around my head that night as I left, thinking about the package and the scrappy note left inside. I had once asked my father why he had chosen to become, of all things, a historian. It clearly wasn’t for the money. He thought long and hard before giving me an answer. So long in fact that he had to email it to me three days later. It consisted of only three terse sentences; History is life; past, present and future. To understand life is to understand humanity. To comprehend humanity is to stare into a window of your own soul. To understand me is the first step I can hope you take. Do not judge me; I am merely flesh and blood. I had never really understood at the time what he meant by that answer and yet that night I began to feel the seeds of awareness being sown.
It was at that moment that I understood my father’s legacy and what it was he wished for me to do. He wanted me to sit down and tell the world his story, to show you all the man I had not known and in many ways I wish I had the opportunity to know. Yet it is more than just his story for his life was interconnected with a vast array of others; some significant, some not. I realised that night that the package my father had left behind is only the beginning of a much greater story, a story that appears to impact on the very fabric of our lives dear readers. How far my father was involved with the events of the last one hundred years or more is, at this time, unknown. What I do know is that at the core remains his story and so, as I began all those pages ago, we must start at the beginning and go on from there. Where it will lead, who knows…?
So dear reader let me present to you the first of my stories, the story of my father’s beginnings; the untold story of Marty Golanski, Martin Quinn as a young man…
Solomon Lucas Quinn
New Lake Geneva