The drive down to Canterbury was, as ever, a joy. Once I was clear of the city and the suburbs, with the hustle and bustle of humanity on every corner, the road opened up and the sheer thrill of the drive permeated my soul with its heady and intoxicating rhythm. I had come to driving relatively late in my life and so had not yet gained the perennial irritation of the harassed motorist. The roads outside of the city were fairly quiet usually but I always seemed to be caught behind an agricultural vehicle or some such which was always frustrating and so having an open road to the fore was an unexpected luxury. My preferred route took me via Maidstone and on to Canterbury via Ashford and then into quite some of the prettiest countryside in England. The road from Ashford to Canterbury via the small villages of Molash and Chilham, with its imposing castle, was a joy to travel upon and in the balmy August sunshine was quite delightful. All thoughts of the task in hand were banished from my mind as the green fields and trees, resplendent in their summer finery, whisked past in a blur. I had planned to stop at Chilham for a spot of lunch and when the village loomed up on the horizon I swung onto the green and parked outside of the small (and only) inn in which I took my luncheon. I dined lightly; a small cold collation of some quite superb ham and cheese; washed down with an exceptional pint of the local beer, before setting off on the final stage of my journey: the three miles to Giltspur Hall and my self professed appointment with destiny.
After having settled my account I climbed into my car and set off although the pangs of doubt about my mission were beginning to gnaw at me. I crave the reader’s indulgence if I have appeared to be a confident and self serving individual; this is my natural reaction when faced with a new and challenging problem. The bravado in the face of adversity has served me in good stead over the years (indeed, it has probably saved my life on more than one occasion) but sadly it has now become something of a poisoned chalice. I am forced by my chosen career to adopt this worldly and brazen persona but it now sits uneasily on my shoulders. My experiences over the years have taken their toll – not so much in terms of physical injuries (although these are real enough), mainly on the emotional and spiritual level – and to be frank I am worn out with endless travelling and sheer, mind-numbing terror associated with writing in a theatre of war. I have known real fear and am past the stage of being frightened by my fear – if I am afraid now then I will happily acknowledge that fact rather than attempt to disguise it. As a result of this acknowledgement of the human condition I am able to function reasonably well in these circumstances, simply through habit – I have already mentioned my ability to travel lightly, honed through years of practise – but it no longer brings me any joy and seems to be more difficult to maintain as the years pass by. The cost in terms of my need to justify the horrors I have suffered; the endless drinking bouts and the excessive indulgence in every imaginable vice; as if to placate the demons of observed humanity within, have left me the withered husk of a man. I have experienced too much hardship and the depths of human misery in others to be a willing traveller, least of to report on such matters, many of which are best left undisturbed and buried from human view. Frankly, travelling now takes too much out of me and so this challenge, safe within the borders of my own country, seems to be the perfect tonic – the after dinner liqueur at the end of a bacchanalian feast, so to speak; such has been my life thus far.
I suddenly found myself at the end of the drive that led up to Giltspur Hall. I felt the return of that old familiar feeling of nerves and unease as I surveyed the forbidding black iron gates and the driveway within. I had rushed into this commission full of verve and righteousness – I was to be the catalyst of a thousand variations on the theme of the written word. The adulation, the rewards, the sheer unadulterated excess of the successful popular author all seemed achievable and so I deceived myself that this was to be my destiny. Suddenly though, the sheer enormity of what I was about to undertake hit me like a hammer. The cold spectre of self doubt began to voraciously gnaw at my previously unassailable sense of conviction. I was used to this feeling (it had been a constant partner to all my efforts over the last ten years or so and so was very much a known quantity) but that did little to make me feel any better. I was here and so would have to make the best of it because after all, it should be a fairly straightforward undertaking, writing this man’s memoirs, and so what harm could possibly befall me? Buoyed up with the tonic to my wavering spirit this thought gave me, I opened the gate and drove up to the imposing grey bulk of the Hall.
As I mentioned earlier, Giltspur Hall is a great Gothic-looking pile of a building which has been sadly allowed to fall into decay over the couple of decades. The main building is virtually empty although a few members of staff (such as they are) still inhabit some of the mouldering chambers. Sir Benjamin lives in a suite of rooms forming an annex butted on, almost as an afterthought, to the end of the main building, furthest from the gravel drive leading to the main entrance. I was unsure of what entrance to approach so opted by default to use the main door. Leaving my belongings in the car I stepped up to the front door and rang the bell. Moments later a jangling of keys was heard and the sound of large and heavy bolts being drawn back. A momentary silence followed and then the great door swung slowly open.
The entrance was very poorly lit and I had great difficulty seeing into the murky interior but this was of little import as my attention was completely absorbed by the striking figure standing before me.
The tall figure standing in the doorway looked exactly like a figure from the Arabian Nights. Tall, slim and wearing full Bedouin Arab dress, complete with an enormous jewel encrusted scimitar, this striking apparition was completely unexpected and I was momentarily taken aback with surprise. “Mr. Royston, if you would be kind enough to follow me, my master is expecting you,” the mysterious Arab addressed me in a rich, deep voice. Before I had a chance to reply this enigmatic figure had turned away and headed back within the gloomy interior. Leaving my bags on the front step I entered the hall and followed him. I was about to mention about my bags when without a pause (and seemingly having read my mind) the ethereal figure in front of me informed me that these has already been taken to my quarters. Quite how this was done was beyond me as I saw no other staff in evidence. Despite the fact it was still daylight the interior of the hall was dull and dreary with the cobwebs and dust of the ages adorning every surface. I knew that Sir Benjamin lived in separate chambers and that the rest of the hall was largely uninhabited but such obvious neglect was a shame and I felt sure the building must have looked suitably grandiose in its heyday. I would ask Sir Benjamin about this very point as and when a suitable opportunity arose.
My Arab guide led me through a labyrinthine maze of corridors and rooms, all of which exhibited the same level of dreariness until at last we reached a door at the end of a long corridor and (as far as I could determine) located on the top floor of the building. Bowing from the waist as he did so, the door was ceremoniously opened for me.
The contrast between the room into which I was shown and the drab and dowdy aspect of all I had seen so far could not have been greater. The room into which I was shown was sumptuously furnished in a Middle Eastern style – complete with richly brocaded drapes in gold and green adorning the walls and a scattering of large cushions. An ornate, deep red Turkish style rug covered the floor and a couple of low occasional tables completed the furnishings. A wooden screen sectioned off another part of the room, behind which was a large and equally opulent bed. The windows were hidden behind blinds and light was provided by a number of small brass lanterns fitted to the walls. The faint small of incense wafted around the room. “My master hopes that this modest apartment will be sufficiently comfortable for your stay and should you require anything then please pull the cord here (he pointed to a rather elaborate bell cord at the side of the largest of the cushions) to summon a member of staff,” he said in an even voice. “My master is currently attending to a minor domestic matter and is thus delayed and so will see you at dinner which we take at six. I will call for you at a quarter to the hour and in the meantime you may wish to refresh yourself after your wearying journey; bathing facilities are in the room directly across the hall, as is your dress for dinner.” After a momentary pause this regal personage bowed low and withdrew from the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts and impressions.
I quickly unpacked my belongings and decided to reserve all my judgements and questions until after I had spoken to Sir Benjamin. I had a couple of hours to pass until dinner so I decided to have a long and leisurely soak in the bath in order to compose myself for the meeting ahead. Following the instructions from my Arab guide (servant did not seem to be an appropriate title; such was his noble bearing) I headed across the hall into the bathroom and was utterly dumbfounded by the vision that greeted me when I opened the door. I expected to see the usual style of bath tub and perhaps a hand basin but was instead greeted by a huge sunken white marble pool, complete with gold fittings, four pillars in an ancient Greek style and a bubbling fountain providing the water. The overpowering scent of eucalyptus permeated the room and the steam had caused rivulets of condensation to run down the walls. A gentle tinkling sound, as if from a harp, sounded above the gentle trickle of the water and the effect of the whole was one of luxurious and relaxing tranquillity. I would enjoy making full use of this facility in no uncertain terms!
My ablutions were long and indulgent and so when I emerged, dripping and wrinkled from the luxurious marble bath I felt positively rejuvenated. A selection of robes had been made available for me and, being familiar with certain aspects of traditional Middle Eastern attire, I was able to dress myself speedily and with little difficulty.
After having dressed and prepared myself (for what I was unsure) I withdrew to my chamber and poured myself a large whisky and soda in order to compose myself in the short time before my guide arrived to escort me to Sir Benjamin. The cushion I chose to recline upon was deep, soft and luxurious and so I was able to relax and order my thoughts and questions prior to the meeting. I felt eager, keen and challenged by the task ahead; all the self deprecating previous doubts and fears banished from my mind in a trice; the soothing and exotic bath and a second whisky and soda had seen to that. I had no plan nor order of questions to put to Sir Benjamin; I would listen and hear the tale he would tell and I would prompt and comment at the appropriate juncture. This would not even be work - more like a strenuous session at a gymnasium with the dumb bells and rowing machine. I realised that this would be the exercise my weary and battered spirit would need; the culmination of all my efforts thus far - the grand finale and apogee of all that had gone before. I was ready to face the demons of Sir Benjamin and would hopefully lay some of my own to rest.
At 5:45 there was a knock at the door. Still seated on my cushion I inhaled deeply and paused momentarily. "Come in" I said, with little ceremony and remaining resolutely seated; my third whisky and soda in hand. The door swung open and the mysterious Arab was standing waiting for me. His face was impassive and in a display of whisky fuelled bravado I challenged him. "All right then Ali, lets go and see what milord wants!" I said (although I immediately regretted this as I was not as drunk as I thought I was). "Please follow me Mr.Royston" he said; bowing as he do so although with a certain amount of ill-disguised disdain, presumably as a result of my earlier clumsy attempt to goad him. Suitably ashamed I stood up and followed him.
Once again, he led me through a succession of dank and musty corridors and I would have been hopelessly lost had my guide not demonstrated endless patience in ensuring that I kept up with him. Eventually, after numerous twists and turns we arrived at an enormous set of double doors; sinister and foreboding in dark wood, a large bronze handle and lock in the centre. The impassively faced Arab smiled at me, his face broken into a diabolical grin with teeth as white as snow. Without any obvious effort the two huge doors swung open and faint smell of flaming torches, palm leaves and roasting meat wafted out from the stygian gloom of the interior.
"Welcome Mr. Royston" a deep voice resonated from within. "Please come in and join me, for there is much for us to discuss". Bowing to the inevitable and with the feeling that I had little choice in the matter in any event, I swallowed and stepped across the threshold; there to meet my destiny.
3. In which Sir Benjamin outlines the background to his experiences and extends a note of warning.