The Long and Spectacular Life of Agnes Magnusdottir
Prologue: 1950 New Year
They had done everything, diets in which they ate only raw vegetables, visited specialist doctors, timed their love making to coincide exactly when a chart pinned to the fridge indicated Mary was at her most fertile. To rule out the possibility of his own infertility Edmund had even gone so far as to let other men sleep with his wife. To make it into a kind of game he and Mary had gone to the bars and chosen the men together. Mary was very beautiful and she could usually get whoever she wanted although not all the men were happy to have a brooding Edmund sitting in the corner of the room silently watching. That was the deal. There was one man, he had the taut muscles of a stevedore and kept his cigarette behind his ear even when he was completely naked, who wanted Edmund to join in and he did, silently stepping out of his vest and underpants as the man beckoned towards him.
"It was too strange," said Mary when it was all over. "To see you kissing another man. I mean, you!"
This was 1950. It was London. They were living in SoHo, in a tiny one bedroom apartment above a bookmakers. Mary did secretarial work for a publishing company while Edmund had started in the civil service. He liked to say to the friends he went to the pub with on a Friday night that he was a spy and while it was true he did handle intelligence, it was of a very very low level.
After the night in which Edmund kissed a man he and Mary laid off strangers for a while.
"If you can't get pregnant," said Edmund, "would it be such a bad thing? Just me and you? I mean, we hardly even have the room here. And what if there were another war?"
"I want a child," said Mary. "Do you know already that I am quite the oldest secretary in the office?"
Edmund started to take in late cinema screenings so he didn't have to go home. In quick succession he saw The Blue Lamp, Night and the City, The Happiest Days of Your Life. If he sat near the front he could easily avoid the courting couples who hogged the back row and buried their faces hungrily into each other. One time, on the way home, he had stopped at a public lavatory and came across two men coming out of a cubicle together. One of the men was doing up his flies and both were smiling but not at each other.
He liked London.
It was as if the whole of the world had been tossed there and then left to get on with it. In amongst the grand old buildings were bombed out shells, crumbling walls and the detritus of a life abandoned. In some of these interruptions, this is how he termed the gaps between the buildings, children played at being soldiers, making kapow noises and then either falling down dead or not.
In nineteen forty-three on his eighteenth birthday Edmund had tried to sign up but they said because of ‘certain psychological inconsistencies’ he would be a liability.
"But there is something we can do for you," they said. That was where his civil service job had come from. He dealt with ’the distribution of food across the United Kingdom’ with a particular interest in fishing quotas.
He had met Mary during an air raid. He had been in Tottenham Court Road and she had been a warden, directing folk to the nearest shelter.
"You'd better come with me," she'd said.
At first he thought she was a man, because of the uniform and the way so easily she had taken charge. He had been having one of his bloody attacks, had barely been able to breath and while everyone else was streaming past she had noticed the trouble he was in.
"You have an unusual accent," he said.
"I was originally from Iceland although my father moved us to Denmark some years before the start of the war."
Iceland, Denmark, he dreamt of those places, tall cool mountains and wide open bodies of water even top marine biologists couldn't get to the bottom of. For part of his job he had come across the fact that ninety-nine per cent of the seas and oceans were completely unexplored. Just imagine, given the right equipment he could be the man for the job! He might find whole new worlds populated with previously undiscovered beings who didn't bob along to the Judeo-Christian morals those above the surface were shackled to.
After they started dating and things were becoming serious he began to have doubts. Sometimes he thought it would have been better if Mary had never met him. She would have been better off with one of those gun-toting American soldiers they were always going on about on the radio. He didn't feel he was a real man. There was something lacking in him.
One night he went to see Stage Fight. Alfred Hitchcock was his favourite director and when the film finished he stayed in his seat and watched the whole thing again and then, he didn't know why except that his life didn't seem fair, he had stopped at a public house on the way home and got quite drunk with a group of Irish builders. They had a lock in and the sun was already starting to show itself above the tops of the shops and houses by the time he made it home.
He found Mary, stern-faced, waiting up for him. The book she had obviously not been able to concentrate on, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, was face down on their tiny kitchen table and a record spun soundlessly on the gramophone, the needle making a thunk, thunk, thunk sound.
"I was worried sick about you," she said. Her normally perfect hair was in disarray. There was a cigarette burning in the ash tray and a half finished glass of port.
"I say," he said. "You shouldn't drink. Or smoke."
"You're a fine one to talk."
They had a furious row then which ended with him slapping her, he wasn't sure where that had come from except he had seen similar things in the movies, and then her slapping him back. For a week after that they didn't speak. When they did finally it was Mary who broke the ice.
"I've booked us a trip," she said. "For the New Year. We’re going to Scotland. In Scotland we will make a baby."
"Why Scotland?" he asked. He said it petulantly although secretly he was rather glad. He hated bad feeling but hadn't wanted to lose face by being the first to make the move to patch things over.
"It's the air," she said. "I read an article in the evening paper. All the dust in the air in London has had an adverse effect on fertility levels. They've done a study. Forty-eight per cent or something."
On the day in question the train looked grand standing at the platform at Kings Cross station. They had a compartment just for the two of them in the sleeper carriage. It was tiny but quite plush, with a framed picture of the King screwed to the wall and gold taps above a bijou sink. Mary had recently read the 1934 crime novel Murder on the Orient Express and she thought it would be fun to imagine themselves characters from the story.
"As long as it's not me who is killed," said Edmund. Then he said, "But I haven't even read it. I don't know who the characters are."
Mary clapped her hands together girlishly. She was clearly excited by the whole trip and in turn this excitement excited Edmund. It took the pressure off him for once. He didn't have to perform.
"But you know roughly the story. People on a train, someone gets murdered, all of the passengers are potential suspects."
They had dinner in a special car. The waiters wore bow ties and waistcoats and called them sir and madam. Edmund had put on his best suit, actually his only suit, the one he wore for work every day, and Mary wore a dress that she had modified herself by sewing large decorative roses all around the collar.
"I think he will be the one to get it," said Mary. She pointed to an elderly gentleman with a large moustache. He was dining with a much younger woman who laughed loudly at everything he said. "She has only married him for his money."
Edmund pulled a face. "That's too obvious. And if it were the case you would have only one suspect. What about him?"
He nodded towards a handsome man sitting alone. He had dark hair, red full lips and a monocle in one eye.
"He's a gigolo. He has wooed and then stolen money from half a dozen women. They are after him along with a man whose identity he stole in order to commit his crimes. And secretly he is a homosexual. He slept with a number of young Germans during the war and he has secretive information that people would rather he didn't have."
"What kind of information?"
Edmund took a long drag on his cigarette. He didn't usually smoke but on this holiday he had decided to enjoy himself. "Oh I don't know. About atrocities the Germans committed during the war. Things they'd prefer that didn't get out."
"You're rather good at this," said Mary. "You should write it down. You might have a best seller on your hands."
Later in the train carriage Mary made Edmund undress in front of her. She insisted they leave the curtains open.
"But what if someone sees?" said Edmund.
"At sixty miles an hour?" said Mary. "What exactly would they see?"
As Mary took him in her mouth, something neither she nor anyone had ever done to him before, he watched their reflection in the window. Seeing only her back she could have been anyone and, as his head was cut off where the glass finished, so could he.
There had been a boy at the second rate boarding school he had attended, his name was Vickers, who had boasted that he got his dog to lick him ’down there’ every time he was at home for the hols. He swore it was the truth although some of their schoolmates didn't believe him.
"The best of it," Vickers had said confidentially, "is that it's a Doberman! Every time he does it I feel like I'm putting my life in his hands. One stray bite and I'm a goner. No sprogs for me."
In order to stop himself from reaching a climax too quickly, the pleasure really was becoming quite intense, Edmund tried to think of something more disagreeable than his old friend Vickers and into his mind came the man from the dining car, the one he had imagined as a gigolo. He knew that Mary had liked him. He could tell by the way she had looked into his eyes and laughed even when he wasn't making a joke.
After they had been playing their Murder on the Orient Express game in the dining car for twenty minutes or so the gigolo had come up to their table.
"Is there a problem?" he had asked swaying slightly due to the passage of the train. "I couldn't help but notice that you have been staring at me."
He had a soft Scottish accent and the tone of his question and subsequent statement had been pleasant. He could have been quite annoyed at being stared at but, it seemed, he was merely curious.
"We were imagining you a victim of murder," said Mary, "and all these other diners as possible suspects."
He had laughed quite openly and then, at Mary’s invitation, joined them for dessert and coffee. It turned out he wasn't a gigolo at all but worked for an Edinburgh opticians called ’Eyes Right’ and had been down to London to try and find business for their range of monocles.
"Quite frankly," he said, "I think the time of monocles has passed but my boss is insistent. He believes they will come back into fashion and indeed be the next big thing. He makes me wear this blasted thing all the time." He tossed the monocle onto the table and it went around and around and around before settling down.
As Edmund was coming back from a visit to the toilet he thought he saw the gigolo pass a piece of paper to Mary and Mary conceal the piece of paper in the sleeve of her dress.
"Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick," said Mary looking at him directly as he sat back down and both she and the gigolo laughed.
"Am I missing something?" he asked unable to hide his annoyance. This was his trip and it was to be done on his terms. He was the man of the house. Or of the train. Or whatever. He had felt his whole body burning with shame.
He woke up once in the night, sweating. He called out to Mary but she wasn't there. Or was she? He had drunk rather a lot in the end, Mary had kept topping up his glass, and he wasn't sure if he was dreaming. And what dreams they were! Awful cracking nightmares in which the whole world pressed down so the very breath was almost pressed out of him. When he woke again the door to their cabin was opening and Mary was coming through. He imagined he saw a figure behind her in the corridor, a smart jacket and a shock of dark hair.
He sat up and groped for the light cord that usually hung by the side of his bed only there wasn't a light cord there. The realisation came to him that he wasn't at home now and that things were different.
"Are you there Mary?" he asked and then, with the dream-like memory of his wife at the door, "Where on earth have you been?"
"I’ve only been to the toilet," she said. "There's no need for concern." Then she said, "This trip is going to be good for us. A child. You have no idea how much I want a child. Or maybe you do?"
He thought he could smell the tang of smoke on her hair as she got into bed next to him and her whole body radiated heat. There was another smell too, animalistic and pungent. Had she been with that gigolo? He clenched his fists and then unclenching them he raked his nails up the sides of his thighs drawing blood. The thing was, and this was the worst thing, he didn't blame her. In her position he probably would have done the same. He wasn't a real man at all and never had been. Better that they HAD let him join the army and then he could have joined the millions of other dead. He could see his own body mangled and lying in a ditch.
"I'm right here," said Mary and it was only then that he realised he was crying, huge tears rolling down both his cheeks. "Come on, now go back to sleep." She began to hum under her breath, "The wheels on the train go round and round, round and round, round and round."
The humming merged with the sound of the train as it thrust into the night but the peacefulness of sleep that he so desired wouldn't come. He was sure in fact that he would never sleep again. Something had changed.
Read Chapter 1