The Escape

A Novel

Adam Thirlwell

Picador

Haffner Unbound1

And so the century ended: with Haffner watching a man caress a woman’s breasts.

It was an imbroglio. He would admit that much. But at least it was an imbroglio of Haffner’s making.

He might have been seventy-eight, but in Haffner’s opinion he counted as young. He counted, in the words of the young, as hip. Or as close to hip as anyone else. Only Haffner, after all, would have been found in this position.

What position?

Concealed in a wardrobe, the doors darkly ajar, watching a woman be nakedly playful to her boyfriend.

This was why I admired him. Haffner Unbound! But there were other Haffners too – Haffner Pensive, Haffner Abandoned. He tended to see himself like this; as in a dream, in poses. Like the panels of a classical frieze.

A tzigani pop album – disco drumbeats, accordions, sporadic trumpets – was being broadcast by a compact-disc player above the minibar. This weakened his squinting concentration. He disliked the modern zest for sex with music. It was better, thought Haffner, for bodies to undress themselves in the quiet of the everyday background hum. In Naples once, in what, he had to say, could only be described as a dive, in the liberated city, the lights went suddenly out, and so the piano stopped, and in the ensuing silent twilight Haffner watched a woman undress so slowly, so awkwardly, so peacefully – accompanied only by the accidental chime of wine glasses, the brief struck fizz of matches – that she had, until this moment, more than fifty years later, remained his ideal of beauty.

Now, however, Haffner was unsure of his ideals.

He continued looking at Zinka. It wasn’t a difficult task. Her hair was dark; her nipples were long, and almost black, with stained pools of areolae; her stomach curved gently towards her hips, where the bone then steeply rose; her legs were slender. Her breasts and nose were cute. If Haffner had a type, then this was it: the feminine unfeminine. The word for her, in his heyday, would have been gamine. She was a garçonne. If those words were, he mused, at the end of his century, still used for girls at all.

They were not.

A suckling noise emerged from Niko, who was now tugging at Zinka’s nipples with the pursed O of his mouth.

Haffner was lustful, selfish, vain – an entirely commonplace man. It was the unavoidable conclusion. He had to admit it. In London and New York he had practised as a banker. His life had been unre-markable. It was the twentieth century’s idea of the bourgeois: the grey Atlantic Ocean. The horizontal fretting waves of the grey Atlantic Ocean. With Liberty at one extreme, and the Bank of England at the other. But Haffner wasn’t straddling the Atlantic any more. A hotel in a spa town was now Haffner’s temporary home. He was landlocked – adrift in the centre of Europe, aloft in the Alps.

And now he was hidden in a wardrobe.

He was not, however, the usual voyeur. It was true that Niko was unaware of his presence. But Zinka – Zinka knew all about this spectral form in the wardrobe. Somehow, in a way which had seemed natural at the time, Zinka and Haffner had developed this idea of Haffner’s unnatural pleasure. The causes were obscure, occasioned by some random confluence of Haffner’s charm and the odd mixture Zinka felt of tenderness for Haffner and mischief towards her boyfriend. But however obscure its causes, the conclusion was obvious.

So, ladies and gentlemen, maybe Haffner was grand, in a way. Maybe Haffner was an epic hero. And if Haffner was a hero, then his wallet, with its creased photographs, was his mute mausoleum. Take a look! Haffner in Rome, wonkily crowned by the curve of the Colosseum, a medusan mess of spaghetti in front of him; Haffner and Livia at a garden party in Buckingham Palace, trying to smile while hoping that Livia’s hat – a plate on which lay a pile of flowers – would not erupt and blow away; Haffner’s grandson, Benjamin, aged four, in a Yankees baseball cap, pissing with cherubic abandon – a live Renaissance fountain – in the gardens of a country house.

All photo albums are unhappy, in the words of the old master, in their own particular way.

2

And me? I was born sixty years after Haffner. I was just a friend.

I went to see him, in a hospital on the outskirts of London. His finale in the centre of Europe had been a decade ago. Now, Haffner was dying. But then Haffner had been dying for so long.

—The thing is, he said, I just need to plan for the next forty-eight hours. We just need to organise the next few days of the new era.

And when I asked him what new era he meant, he replied that this was exactly what we had to find out.

Everything was ending. On the television, a panel was discussing the crisis. The money was disappearing. The banks were disappearing. The end, as usual, was continuing. I wasn’t sorry for the money, however. I was sorry for Haffner. There was a miniature rose in bud on the table. Haffner was trying to explain. Something, he said, had gone very very wrong. Perhaps, he said, we just needed to get this closed – pointing to a bedside cabinet, whose lock was gone.

He was lower than the dust, he told me. Lower than the dust. After an hour, he wanted to go to the bathroom. He started trying to undress himself, there in his armchair. And so I called a nurse and then I left him, as he was ushered into the women’s bathroom, because that bathroom was closer to the room in which Haffner was busily dying.

Standing in the hospital’s elliptical concrete drive, as the electric doors opened and closed behind me, I waited for the taxi to take me to the trains – back to the city. Across the silver fields the mauve fir trees kept themselves to themselves. It was neither the country nor the city. It was nowhere.

And as I listened to the boring sirens, I rehearsed my memories of Haffner.

With my vision of Haffner – his trousers round his ankles, his hands nervous at his cream underwear – I began my project for his resurrection. Like that historian looking down at the ruins of Rome, in the twilight – with the tourists sketching their souvenirs, and the bells beginning, and the pestering guides, and the watersellers, and the sun above them shrinking: the endless and mortal sun.

3

His career had been the usual success story. After the war Haffner had joined Warburg’s. He had distinguished himself with the money he made in the exchange crisis. But his true moment had arrived some years later, when it was Haffner who had realised, as the fifties wore on, the American crisis with dollars. Only Haffner had quite understood the obviousness of it all. The obtuseness of Regulation Q! Naturally, more and more dollars would leave, stranded as they were in the vaults of the United States, and come to Europe – to enrich themselves. This was what he had explained to an executive in Bankers Trust, who was over in London to encourage men like Haffner to move to New York. In 1963, therefore, Haffner left Warburg’s for America, where he stayed as a general manager for eleven years. He was the expert in currency exchange: doyen of the international. Then, in 1974, he returned as Chief General Manager in the London office of Chase Manhattan. Just in time for the birth of his grandson – who had promised so much, thought Haffner, as another version of Haffner, and yet delivered so little. Then, finally, there came Haffner’s final promotion to the board of directors. His banishment, joked Haffner.

Haffner, I have to admit, didn’t practise the usual art of being a grandfather. Cowardice, obscenity, charm, moral turpitude: these were the qualities Haffner preferred. He had bravado. And so it was that, a decade ago, in the spa town, when everything seemed happier, he had avoided the letters from his daughter, the telephone calls from his grandson, the metaphysical lamentation from his exasperated family. Instead, he continued staring at Zinka’s breasts, as Niko clumsily caressed them.

Since Zinka was the other hero of Haffner’s finale, it may be useful to understand her history.

To some people, Zinka said she was from Bukovina. This was where she had been born, at the eastern edge of Europe – on a night, her mother said, when everything had frozen, even the sweat on her forehead. Her mother, as Zinka knew, was given to hyperbole. To other people, Zinka said she was from Bucharest; and this was true too. It was where she had grown up, in an apartment block out to the north of the city: near the park. But to Haffner, she had simply said she was from Zagreb. In Zagreb, she had trained in the corps de ballet. Until History, that arrogant personification, decided to interrupt. So now she worked here, in this hotel in a spa town, in the unfashionable unfrequented Alps, north of the Italian border – as a health assistant to the European rich.

This was where Haffner had discovered her – in the second week of his escape. Sipping a coffee, he had seen her – the cute yoga teacher – squatting and shimmying her shoulders behind her knees, while the hotel guests comically mimicked her. She was in a grey T-shirt and grey tracksuit trousers: a T-shirt and trousers which could not conceal the twin small swelling of her breasts, borrowed from an even younger girl, and their reflection, the twin swelling of her buttocks, borrowed from an even younger boy. Then she clasped her hands inside out above her back, in a pose which Haffner could only imagine implied such infinite dexterity that his body began to throb, and he felt the old illness return. The familiar, peristaltic illness of the women.

Concealed in a bedroom wardrobe, he looked up at what he could see of the ceiling: where the electric bulb’s white light was converted by a dusty trapezoid lampshade into a peachy, emollient glow.

He really didn’t want anything else. The women were the only means of Haffner’s triumph – his ageing body still a pincushion for the multicoloured plastic arrows of the victorious kid-god: Cupid.

4

Reproductions of these arrows could now be found disporting on Niko’s forearms, directing the observer’s gaze up to his biceps, where two colourful dragons were eating their own tails – dragons which, if he could have seen them in detail, would have reminded Haffner of the lurid mythical beasts tattooed on the arms of his CO in the war. But Haffner could not see these dragons in detail. Gold bracelets tightly gilded Niko’s wrist. Another more abstract tattoo spread over the indented muscles of his stomach – a background, now, to his erect penis, to which Zinka – dressed only in the smallest turquoise panties – was attending.

Situations like these were Haffner’s habitat – he lived for the women, ever since he had taken out his first ever girl, to the Ionic Picture Theatre on the Finchley Road. Her name was Hazel. She let him touch her hand all through the feature. The erotic determined him. The film they had seen had been chosen by Hazel: a romance involving fairies, and the spirits of the wood. None of the effects – the billowing cloths, the wind machines, the fuzzy light at the edges of each frame, the doleful music – convinced sarcastic Haffner of their reality. Afterwards, he had bought her two slices of chocolate cake in a Lyons Tea House, and they looked at each other, tenderly – while, in a pattern which would menace Haffner all his life, he began to wonder when he might acceptably, politely, try to kiss her.

He was mediocre; he was unoriginal. He admitted this freely. With only one thing had Haffner been blessed – with the looks. There was no denying, Haffner used to say, mock-ruefully, that Haffner was old – especially if you took a look at him. In the words of his favourite comedian. But Haffner knew this wasn’t true. He was unoriginal – but the looks were something else. It was not just his friends who said this; his colleagues acknowledged it too. Now, at seventy-eight, Haffner possessed more hair than was his natural right. This hair was blond. His eyes were blue; his cheeks were sculpted. Beneath the silk weave of his polo necks, his stomach described the gentlest of inclinations.

Now, however, Haffner’s colleagues would have been surprised. Haffner was dressed in waterproof sky-blue tracksuit trousers, a sky-blue T-shirt, and a pistachio sweatshirt. These clothes did not express his inner man. This much, he hoped, was obvious. His inner man was soigné, elegant. His mother had praised him for this. In the time when his mother praised him at all.

—Darling, she used to say to him, you are your mother’s man. You make her proud. Let nobody forget this.

She dressed him in white sailor suits, with navy stripes curtailing each cuff. At the children’s parties, Haffner acted unconcerned. As soon as he could, however, he preferred the look of the gangster: the Bowery cool, the Whitechapel raciness. Elegance gone to seed. His first trilby was bought at James Lock, off Pall Mall; his umbrellas came from James Smith & Sons, at the edge of Covent Garden. The royal patent could seduce him. He had a thing for glamour, for the mysteries of lineage. He could talk to you for a long time about his lineage.

The problem was that now, at the end of the twentieth century, his suitcase had gone missing. It had vanished, two weeks ago, on his arrival at the airport in Trieste. It had still not been returned. It was imminent, the airline promised him. Absolutely. His eyesight, therefore, had been forced to rely on itself – without his spectacles. And he had been corralled into odd collages of clothes, bought from the outdoor-clothes shops in this town. He walked round the square, around the lake, up small lanes, and wondered where anyone bought their indoor clothes. Was the indoors so beyond them? Was everyone always outdoors?

He was a long way from the bright lights of the West End.

Zinka leaned back, grinned up at Niko, who pushed strands of her hair away from her forehead: an idyll. He began to kiss her, softly. He talked to her in a language which Haffner did not know. But Haffner knew what they were saying. They were saying they loved each other.

It was midsummer. He was in the centre of Europe, as high as Haffner could go. As far away as Haffner could get. Through the slats on the window he could see the blurred and Alpine mountains, the vague sky and its clouds, backlit by the setting sun. The view was pricked by conifers.

And Haffner, as he watched, was sad.

He lived for the women. He would learn nothing. He would learn nothing and leave everyone. That was what his daughter had said of him, when she patiently shouted at him and explained his lack of moral courage, his pitiful inadequacy as a husband, as a father, as a man. He would remain inexperienced. It seemed an accurate description.

But as Zinka performed for her invisible audience, Haffner still felt sad. He thought he would feel exultant, but he did not. And the only explanation he could think of was that, once again, Haffner was in love. But this time there was a difference. This, thought Haffner, was the real thing. As he had always thought before, and then had always convinced himself that he was wrong.

5

The pain of it perturbed him. To this pain, he had to acknowledge, there was added the more obvious pain in his legs. He had now been standing for nearly an hour. The difficulty of this had been increased by the tension of avoiding the stray coat hangers Haffner had not removed. It was ridiculous, he thought. He was starting to panic. So calm yourself, thought Haffner. He tried to concentrate on the naked facts – like the smallness of Zinka’s breasts, but their smallness simply increased his panic, since they only added to the erotic charge with which Haffner was now pulsing. They were so little to do with function, so much to do with form – as they hung there, unsupported. The nipple completed them; the nipple exhausted them. They were dark with areolae. Their proportions all tended to the sexual, away from the neatly maternal.

Haffner wasn’t into sex, after all, for the family. The children were the mistake. He was in it for all the exorbitant extras.

No, not for Haffner – the normal curves, the pedestrian features. His desire was seduced by an imperfectly shaved armpit, or a tanning forearm with its swatch of sweat. That was the principle of Haffner’s mythology. Haffner, an admirer of the classics. So what if this now made him laughable, or ridiculous, or – in the newly moralistic vocabulary of Benji, his Orthodox and religious grandson – sleazy? As if there should be closure on dirtiness. As if there should ever be, thought Haffner, any shame in one’s lust. Or any more shame than anyone else’s. If he could have extended the epic of Haffner’s lust for another lifetime, then he would have done it.

Excerpted from The Escape by .
Copyright © 2010 by Adam Thirlwell.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.