Before the war, travelling to Torquay had mostly been for pleasure – holidaymakers would travel down to the south west to swim in the town’s famously blue waters, to marvel at the sights, and to look out over the ocean. Now, however, the journey was made most often by evacuees, desperate to get away from the danger of London.
The south west of England had always, though, been a place unto itself, with different mores, a different accent, and a different, slower, pace of life than the metropolis. Ian Fleming had once heard someone talk about how the difference between Britain and America was that in America a hundred years was a long time, while in Britain a hundred miles was a long way. The hundred-and-sixty or so miles between London and Torquay seemed an almost insurmountable distance culturally, if not geographically.
This was not a place of clubs and chaps who knew chaps. This was a place where everyone knew everyone, and where strangers were not welcome, even though the town had built itself on tourism. People from out of town were perfectly fine to spend their money on overpriced ices and watered beer, but they were not to be talked to, or to be treated as people rather than walking wallets.
And because of this reticence, and a general reluctance to give directions, Fleming had some difficulty finding his target, and it was almost dark before he arrived. Aleister Crowley had apparently moved relatively recently, and Fleming found him not in a Gothic mansion or abandoned monastery, but in a small, white-painted, suburban house.
Fleming’s knock had been answered by a frail-looking old man, who bore such little resemblance to the Great Beast of legend that Fleming had needed to make sure he’d come to the right place.
“I’m looking for Aleister Crowley”.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said the skinny, balding old man, with the white goatee, with bits of egg-yolk in his beard.
“An interesting creed. But not, perhaps, a useful one during a war.”
“Come through to my dining room, and we might discuss its utility in comfort.”
Crowley led Fleming through to a small dining room, whose window opened onto a view of the green fields nearby. He sat at the single chair pulled up to a round wooden coffee table, on which was a cup of tea, much of which seemed to have spilled into the saucer on which the cup was placed, and an eggcup containing a half-eaten boiled egg with a spoon still inside it.
Crowley gestured to the one other chair in the room, and Fleming pulled it up to the table.
“Do sit down,” Crowley said, after Fleming had taken his seat. He picked up his spoon, and finished off his egg, eating slowly and methodically, and dabbing his mouth with a napkin after every bite. Only when he had finished eating did he resume the conversation. “Now, you believe that doing one’s will is an anarchist creed. Far from it. Should the policemen and judges of this world be let loose on society, it would be a veritable hell. One cannot do one’s will until one understands what that will is, and very few people have attained such a level of understanding.”
Crowley smiled, a gentle smile which quite surprised Fleming with his charm. Crowley had an imposing reputation, but the elderly gentleman here did indeed seem a gentle man. There was a kindness to him which quite belied Wheatley’s fearsome warnings. Fleming decided he was going to like this man.
Crowley dabbed his mouth again with his napkin, smearing the egg yolk without managing to remove any of it, then continued talking.
“Anyway, I do not normally enter into metaphysical debate until I have been introduced to my interlocutor. You would be?”
“My name is Ian Fleming, sir, and I have come on behalf of Naval Intelligence.”
“Ah, so you would be here about the Hess affair. Most perplexing. Why would an intelligent man think that Britain would – now, of all times – be interested in surrender? A year ago, maybe. But we have struggled through enough, and lost enough, that to back down without victory would be a betrayal of the dead.”
“Indeed. I’m sure he has his reasons, though.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you knew what those reasons were. But you in the intelligence services know more than most the wisdom of the command to know, to dare, to will, and to keep silence. I shall not press you on matters which are beyond the scope of my activities, and shall assume that you will inform me of any matters which are germane.”
Crowley reached into his jacket pocket and took out a small, zippered, pouch. He opened it, and nestled in what looked like a velvet lining was a syringe.
“I hope you don’t mind, sir, if I take my regular infusion of diamorphine?”
Fleming nodded his assent, and Crowley tied off his left arm, found a vein, and injected the fluid. His expression immediately changed into one of vacant bliss – rather more quickly, Fleming thought, than the drug could have affected him; Fleming wondered if this was all an act, and if Crowley had injected some inert substance rather than the narcotic.
The two men talked for some time about trivial matters, and Fleming noted that Crowley’s train of thought seemed to drift, more or less at random. He would be talking about the insignia of the Nazis, and then suddenly break off and start talking about the Egyptian god Noor-Ra-Huit, or he would ask about Hess and, before Fleming had a chance to answer, would go on into a digression about demonic possession.
Eventually, Fleming managed to steer the topic around to the purpose of his visit.
“So, Mr. Crowley, what help, precisely, do you think you can provide His Majesty’s Government in the matter of Herr Hess?”
“Oh, I thought maybe I could perform an exorcism on him. Or maybe telepathically contact him and extract the appropriate information from him.”
Fleming paused before replying. “You’re offering…to perform a magic spell? That’s your offer?”
“Indeed. I shall magickally extract any information you require from his skull.”
“We were rather hoping that you should, perhaps, merely intimidate him. Put on a show of some sort, or offer him occult secrets in return for his co-operation.”
“My dear sir!” Crowley’s expression was a perfect mask of offence, save for his eyes, which were glittering. “You ask me to perform…fakery? To prostitute my life’s work?”
“I apologise if I have caused any offence. But you must understand that His Majesty’s Government does not believe that telepathic powers have any effect. Your magic can’t be of any use to us.”
“In that case, sir, I fear we have nothing further to discuss. Please give my regards to Mr. Wheatley.”
Fleming was half-way down the street before he realised that he had not mentioned Wheatley to Crowley at all.
This is an excerpt from my novel, Destroyer. If you like this chapter, please buy the book. It can be bought in hardback from Lulu. The Kindle and paperback editions are available from Amazon (UK) and (US). For non-Kindle ebook versions This Books2Read Universal Link will give you links for your preferred ebook retailer.
I’ve been waiting so long to read this book! It’s not quite what I expected; today it comes on me much more that I am oddly riveted by the characters’ relationships to food — war eggs, war bread, war tea. Perhaps it’s the presence of Crowley, but I feel strongly reminded of LoEG: Century…and even more strongly reminded of Colin Wilson’s Lovercraft pastiches, Philosopher’s Stone in particular, in which the most desultory descriptions are paradoxically the most striking. I should say, too, that the opening chapter couldn’t help but remind me of John Buchan’s similar description of a North Sea crossing, in…was it “The Three Hostages”? I wonder if it’s just my expectations, of a book without women that’s set in this time and place, or if it’s Andrew’s zeroing-in on the exact flavour of those things…or, more than that, simply the effect of women being largely absent from such thrillers, that makes me look much more closely on the little things of everyday household existence and wonder that it seems so…I dunno, strangely malign, without the other half of the human race being present in it.
Maybe a stretch, there. But still! If this was meant to look and sound like it belongs with other things that are like it, well it really does. Wilson said that if anyone thought those Lovecraft pastiches were easy to do then they should try one of their own…I wouldn’t dare it, but I’m glad you have!
Bit of a page-turner, too!
Really enjoying it.