tagNovels and NovellasThe Great Man is Dead

The Great Man is Dead


"So the Great Man is dead," I said, looking into the flames of the log fire.

Charles drew on his cigar and then blew out a stream of smoke.

I was spending a few days with my friend and colleague Charles, and as we sat in his comfortable lounge outside the wind was whistling and howling round the house, somehow making it a time for raking up old memories.

Just as I thought Charles was going to let the subject pass he said, "Yes, ninety six, the old devil, who'd have thought it."

"You know Charles, despite the fact that he was considered one of the great minds of our time, there seems to be very little known about him apart from his actual work."

"True, old boy, true."

One of the logs crackled and vomited a hot ember onto the hearth. I watched it glow for a while, then gradually cool and turn black.

There was something I wanted to ask Charles, something he had never spoken about to me, and although it was only a rumour, someone must have known something.

I cleared my throat and asked carefully, "I've heard it said that you once lived with him."

Charles grinned and then laughed out loud. "So you've heard the rumour?"

"Yes, is it true?"

He looked at me with a glint of humour in his eyes, drew on his cigar again and said, "Yes, it's true."

"Then you must know something about his private life."

"Mmm, yes, I know something about his private life."

"Well come on, tell, what's the mystery?"

He thought for a moment and then said, "I suppose it doesn't matter now the old boy's dead and the rest of the family with him – all except one of the daughters of course.

"Is it so bad?"

"Depends on your point of view John."

"Come on Charles, stop playing hard to get; tell all; how did you come to live with him?"

"Oh that; that's the easy bit; it was back in the fifties and I'd just finished my degree and the old boy was looking for a sort of tutor assistant. My professor mentioned my name to him and before I knew it I was on my way to the old boy's university."

"Come Charles, it couldn't have been as easy as that."

"But it was I swear it. I didn't even have an interview."

"So how did you come to live with him?"

"Ah," he paused for a moment, blew on the end of his cigar and stared at its glowing tip. "Now this is the God's honest truth, John. When I received the letter to say I'd got the appointment it had tacked onto the end that I could live at Doctor Menis' house until I found a place of my own."

"That was very decent of him."

"Was it...yes, I suppose it was, but probably not in the way he intended it to be decent."

"I don't understand."

"No, I don't suppose you do."

"Are you being deliberately obscure, Charles?"

"No of course not, but I've never told the story before so I'm trying to assemble my thoughts."

"All right, I'll wait until you've got them tacked together," I said a trifle acidly.

Another pause while Charles drew on his cigar, and then; "Okay, here it is."

"Back in the fifties I suppose I was a pretty innocent guy; a lot of us were in those days before the sexual revolution and all that. I'd come from a parsonage and my father and mother always seemed to be trying to outdo each other on the subject of fire and brimstone. If you did something you enjoyed it was evil, sinful, foul or reeked of carnality. I can remember my father once preaching on the evils of women's silk underwear."

"At university I still couldn't shake off the image of the eternal fires awaiting anyone who stepped over the line drawn by my mother and father. I buried myself in study and football – I was quite a powerful young guy in those days."

I could well believe it because even now in his seventies Charles is still an impressive figure of a man.

"When I got the offer to live temporarily in the Menis' house I wrote to my parents, virtually asking for permission to take up the offer. They were over the moon about it, living in the Great Man's house and all that, so off I went."


He guffawed, "Yes, 'and.' And when I finally found the place it turned out to be a big old house that looked as if it hadn't had a coat of paint since Queen Victoria was going through puberty. The garden was a mess, full of weeds and rubbish."

"I went to the front door and tugged on one of those old fashioned bell pulls. About a minute and the door was opened by a smart looking woman who seemed to be in her fifties."

"Well I knew the old boy was in his fifties then, so I took her to be Mrs. Menis so I enquired, 'Mrs. Menis?'"

"'No, I'm Bella.' As I was to learn, if she'd ever had another name nobody remembered it, and she turned out to be a sort house keeper/cook and general dogsbody. How that place would have survived without her I don't know."

"Anyway, she asked rather haughtily, 'What do you want?' So I said I'd come to work in Doctor Menis' department at the university and that I'd been invited to stay in his house for a while."


" 'Er, Charles Stuart.' Then I added my usually corny joke, 'No relation to the...'"

"'No one's said anything to me,' she cut in before I got to the punch line."

"Oh. I...er..."

"I'll go and enquire."

"She left me standing there while she toddled off. When she came back she said, 'They don't know anything about you, but they say you'd better come in.'"

"She led me to a door down the bottom end of the hallway and opening it she said, 'Here he is,' and then she almost shoved me into the room."

Two pairs of female eyes swivelled round to focus on me. It was a huge room, and one of the weirdest I'd ever seen. It was a clutter of books, papers, what looked like dress making equipment, and banks of filing cabinets – no computers in those days old chap – and a large desk behind which sat a pale wizen looking old man.

"The two pairs of female eyes had bodies attached to them, and I have to admit what I would never have told my parents; that those female bodies and their adjacent faces were fair to gaze upon."

Nobody said anything so I finally stuttered, "Er...I'm C-C-Charles S-Stuart."

Still nobody said anything and the ancient of days behind the desk didn't look up from a document he seemed to be reading."

"This hiatus in social communication seemed to go on for ages, but then someone came into the room behind me."

"'Oh Mr. Stuart, I'm so sorry I wasn't here to greet you; I'm Mrs. Menis. Welcome to our home. Darling, this is Mr. Charles Stuart.'"

I decided not risk the joke but one of the girls who looked to be about eighteen or nineteen giggled and asked, "Any relation to Bonnie Prince Charlie?"

"I smiled, I think a trifle sickly, and shook my head."

"The two girls laughed and I felt like crawling away and hiding."

I was now able to survey Mrs. Menis and what I saw nearly bowled me over. You see, knowing that Doctor Menis was in his fifties I hadn't connected him with the wizen guy behind the desk; he looked as if he was in his seventies pushing eighty."

"Since Mrs. Menis had introduced herself and called the ancient of days 'Darling,' I had to accept that he was indeed Doctor Menis. But that was one of the most anomalous things about the situation, because Mrs. Menis was an idealised version of a Wagnerian soprano."

"She was so beautiful that given a good singing voice any opera producer would have killed to get her. She put what turned out to be their two daughters in the shade; for all that they were attractive girls."

Mrs. Menis was a golden haired goddess; tall, with a splendid figure and the face of Athena. Most noticeable were her magnificent breasts, and it was these that gave me a problem, because I knew if I looked at them too long I would have what my father called, 'Lascivious thoughts,' a sin so foul that it arose from the slime of the deepest pit."

"You know John; I sometimes wonder how my parents ever managed to produce me."

"Virgin birth?" I conjectured idly.

He ignored my quip and rose to put another log on the fire and then poured us a couple of liberal fingers of Scotch.

He sat silent for so long I thought he'd said all he intended to say, but suddenly he said, "She was a goddess, you know, my goddess, the Earth Mother, the fecundity of Spring and the warmth of Summer."

"Which one?"

"Mrs. Menis of course, if you can't listen to me properly I won't tell you any more," he said petulantly.

"I'm all ears," I said, "You fell for her?"

He sighed, "Yes, from the first moment I saw her, but it was a pure love, unsullied by lust and the desires of the flesh. She was beyond such things – pure spirit."

I doubted that his admiration for Mrs. Menis was quite so spiritual, but I asked, "So what happened?"

"Well, she introduced me to her daughters, Barbara and Rachel - Rachel was the young one who was around sixteen - and then to the old boy. Do you know, he'd forgotten all about me. Mrs. Menis had to find the correspondence we'd exchanged before he understood who I was."

"But...but he was one of the outstanding minds of the twentieth century, how could he have forgotten?"

"Oh yes, Nobel Laureate and God knows how many other awards and honorary doctorates from all over the world. But after a while I came to see why he could forget a lowly worm like me."

He sipped his whisky and thought for a moment. "You see, he had a mind like a computer, or as we would have said back then, like a filing cabinet. It was full of facts and to give him credit, and he got plenty of that, he could put all these facts into coherent theories and then prove them. You name it, physics, philosophy, mathematics, psychology the whole works, but you see, there was something missing."


"Don't really know how to put it. It was as if...as if there was nothing behind the filing cabinet, or if there was it was a disembodied wraith. You know, a bit like the sound of a saxophone, bodiless."

"You mean he was somehow less than human?"

"Something like that. But then there was Mrs. Menis and the two girls. I mean, he must have been human, at least twice."

"You mean like your parents must have been human at least once?"

He looked put out about my saying that and said huffily, "That's quite different."

I sipped on my own whisky while I waited for him to go on. He took his time lighting a fresh cigar before speaking again. When he did he went temporarily away from the subject of Doctor Menis.

"Bella, who by now seemed to have learned that I had a legitimate reason for being there came in and asked, "Is he staying?"

"Yes of course he is, Bella. You can show him to his room, I got it all ready for him. Oh by the way, Charles...you don't mind if I call you Charles, do you?"

"My God John, she'd never have made it as a Wagnerian soprano because she had the most gorgeous, golden contralto voice. She could have called me anything she liked and I'd have accepted it just to hear that voice."

"You really were bitten, Charles."

"Yes," he replied in a distant voice. "I was her slave from the first moment – and by the way, that's what that "assistant" bit really meant. As it turned out I was more or less a dogsbody to Mrs. Menis and the girls, and Bella for that matter."

"I ran errands, escorted Mrs. Menis and the girls on shopping sprees, did general repairs round their decaying house and – and do you know, I found out that Mrs. Menis had once been engaged to the wealthy son of an aristocratic family; Bella told me that and a lot of other things once she got used to me being around."

"Intriguing," I replied. "So how did she come to marry someone like Menis?"

"As far as I could gather she exchanged wealth for brains. They met at some sort of social gathering, and that was it, the wealthy young bloke dumped and she marring a guy twice her age because he was a great brain."

"You know John, before I met the old boy I thought he must have been seven feet tall, broad and handsome. Funny how you can so often get a mental picture of someone, a picture that doesn't match up with the reality."

"Yes, I met a film star once and was bitterly disappointed. All the features I'd fallen in love with on the screen looked really sleazy when I met her in the flesh."

We sat silently contemplating the apparent gap between ideal and reality for a while. No doubt Plato would have had something to say on the subject.

"Is that the story then?" I asked.

"No, unless you don't want to hear any more. Here, let me give you a refill."

"Of course I want to hear more, so tell."

"Apart from being the general dogsbody round the place the tutoring bit still applied. You probably know he had on his staff some very eminent people, and I felt utterly inferior; the new boy not long graduated mixing with the great minds."

"So how did you cope?"

"It was strange about that. Menis never said anything to me himself, but he must have told people on the staff, because it seems he'd said I was destined to have a great academic future."

"Which prophecy has turned out to be true," and laughing I added, "You might not have the computer brain of a Menis, but you do have the advantage of being human, as witness your grandchildren."

He smiled; "Yes, I suppose I do. I suppose I became human when Mrs. Menis managed to help me overcome hell fire and damnation thinking."

"How did she manage that?" He seemed for a moment to go off at a tangent.

"Not long after I started I went flat hunting, but when I found one, the whole family, including Bella, begged me to stay and even Menis had something to say about it."

" 'You're part of the family now,' Mrs. Menis said, and I suppose I was if being at everybody's beck and call was part of being a member of the family."

"So what did you do?"

"What could I do? Everybody pleading with me to stay, and by staying being near my goddess, so I stayed; after all the chores I did around the place were no hardship, especially escorting a couple of attractive girls and Mrs. Menis. A lot of guys would have killed for the sort of company."

He gave a wry laugh and went on, "The youngest girl, Rachel, actually fell in love with me. She used to write poems and sneak into my bedroom and put them on my pillow, or I'd find one had been stuffed into my overcoat pocket. They were full of hungering hearts, virgin flowers, yearning breasts and love lorn moons; they were terrible and I told her so, but she kept them coming."

"I think both the girls knew that I was spiritually in love with their mother. It didn't seem to bother Barbara, but Rachel kept making hints about adulterous desires and so on. As far as the old boy was concerned I think he was blissfully unaware of my worshipful longings, but then, he never seemed to be aware of anything that wasn't in his filing cabinet brain, and I don't think he was aware of my existence most of the time."

"But surely you couldn't go on like that; I mean, you might have been spiritually in love with Mrs. Menis, but she was flesh and blood and so were you, and if she was half as attractive as you say..."

"Oh, she was...she was...but she seemed totally devoted to the Doc; I think most of the time she was the only one who really kept him in touch with the real world. In fact she seemed to devote most of her time to him and his needs. She often spoke to me about his genius and it almost seemed as if she was devoted to his brain; rather like keeping a brain in a glass bottle alive by artificial means."

"So how did it work out?"

"Hah, you might well ask old chap. At one time Mrs. Menis decided she would go and visit her mother for a couple of weeks. Her mother lived in one of the northern cities.'

'The old boy had always been a bit asthmatic and almost as soon as Mrs. Menis announced her decision he had an asthma attack. He was gasping and struggling for breath and went whiter than ever. I thought he was going to die. The doctor arrived post haste and dosed Menis up with things."

"Mrs. Menis decided to delay her trip until she was sure he'd recovered, and all seemed well until she announced again that she was going on the visit."

"Then the lid blew off again, although this time it was palpitations of the heart, and Mrs. Menis cancelled out again and sat by his beside all day and half the night. It seems she slept in the room but not in the bed with him."

"Psychosomatic?" I asked.

"That's what I thought at the time, John, but there was no doubt about the asthma attacks or the heart palpitations, but then things got worse. If it was psychosomatic, and I think later events proved that it was, he gave a bloody good performance."

"He started to slowly go down hill and they couldn't find out why. It may have been one of those strange viruses that they didn't know anything about at the time but which we've identified since. I don't know, but Mrs. Menis got exhausted looking after him, so they brought in a nurse, and soon after he was in an oxygen tent."

"If it was psychosomatic he was certainly putting on a convincing act and making sure his wife got the message so that she couldn't leave him, not even for a couple of weeks."

"Could he really maintain that sort of performance?"

Charles shrugged his shoulders and sipped his whisky. "Well performance or not he really managed to convince every one he was going to die. Mrs. Menis started to show the strain; the great brain was dying and the world needed his genius. Naturally, seeing my goddess fading away I was very distraught myself."

"But since he's only just died at ninety six he must have recovered."

"You have a genius of stating the obvious John; yes, he recovered all right, and I think I may have had something to do with it."

"Really! In what way?"

"Well, it was Bella who gave me the clue – mind you, I didn't see it as a clue at the time, I only saw it afterwards."

"After what?"

"Bella could see that Mrs. Menis was exhausted despite the nurse. She pointed out to me how utterly dependent on his wife the old boy was and that if anyone could save him it was her, but she no longer had the energy to go on giving to him. As Bella put it, "She's not got the vital force to give him, so he's going to die."

"Yes, I've heard about that. People who are dying hold on to life through someone else, often by holding their hand, and the person sustaining them is drained of energy."

"That's it, old chap, the old bugger had drained her, and she was desperate to keep him alive, as is said, for the sake of the world. She needed to be re-energized."

"So how..."

"I'm not sure I should tell you this, but, well, he's gone now and she's been long gone."

"Sounds exciting."

"Does it? Yes. I suppose it was, and to a virgin guy in his twenties brought up by a couple of religious fanatics, it smelt of hell's sulphur at first."

"Tell all," I said, feeling that the really exciting part was about to emerge.

It happened...it came about like this. One night when I was in bed a hand touched me and I woke up. It was pitch dark but I knew it was her straight away."


"She had a particular fragrance about her that I'd often noticed. Not perfume or anything like that; it was just her. It was bit like those people who always seem to smell of perspiration but not unpleasant in her case. It was a smell that screamed out, 'Woman,' it was tantalising and had often almost given me lascivious thoughts."


"All right then, it did give me lascivious thoughts but I fought against them."

"She touched me again and said, 'Charles.'"

"I was still partly asleep but coming round quickly. My goddess was beside my bed, and from the tone of her voice needed the aid of her worshipper."

" 'Yes?' I whispered.

" 'I can't go on, Charles, I haven't the strength any more. He's going to die, I know he is and I must talk to someone, I can't face it all alone any more.'"

"She sat down on the bed and started to cry. Crying at home had always been an offence to God so I had no idea what you did with a crying woman. I suppose I extemporised and put my hand on her shoulder. That made her cry even more so I put my arm round her and said, "Don't cry, I'm sure he'll recover."

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