A powerful meditation on loss and memory seen through the prism of 9/11, by one of our greatest authors. Ben Matson lost someone he loved in the 9/11 attacks. Or thinks he did - no body has been recovered, and she shouldn't have been on that particular plane at that time. But he knows she was. The world has moved on from that terrible day. Nearly 20 years later, it has faded into a dull memory for most people. But a chance encounter rekindles Ben's interest in the event, and the inconsistencies that always bothered him. Then the announcement of the recovery of an unidentified plane crash sets off a chain of events that will lead Ben to question everything he thought he knew . . . Thoughtful, impeccably researched and dazzling in its writing, this is Ben's story, the story of what happened to his fiancé, and the story of all that happened on 9/11.
Release date: September 6, 2018
Print pages: 400
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An American Story
NYC – the story
She said to me: ‘Here’s the story. It’s probably not what you expect. You want me to read it to you?’
She was holding an information sheet she had just retrieved from her mailbox in the lobby of the apartment building. It had been mailed from the office of a heritage organization in Edinburgh, Scotland.
‘OK,’ I said. I was still on my first cup of coffee. It was too early in the day for a story, but she was sitting across from me, looking pleased, wanting to make me hear it.
‘I’ll leave out some of the ordinary stuff. Here goes: “It began as a Victorian house, built in 1855 for a man named John Smith.” Would that really be his name? John Smith? That’s like John Doe, right? “The house was then called Swanstonhill. It had an extensive estate, including woodland and meadows, situated on high ground overlooking the village of Port Bannatyne, on the Isle of Bute. It commanded panoramic north-facing views over the narrow stretch of sea called the Kyles, which separates the island from the Cowal peninsula.”’
We were a world away from Scotland, sitting in her cosily untidy apartment on the thirteenth floor of E 104 St in New York City. The only window in the room looked out on to other windows at the same height in the apartment building opposite. Sunlight reached her room once a day, around five in the afternoon, for about twenty minutes.
‘“In the early 1870s a natural spring was discovered at the western end of the property. The water was high in minerals and health-inducing salts.”’ She peered closely at a small map included in the text. She continued, putting on a terrible imitation of an English accent which she almost immediately changed to an even worse Scottish one: ‘“Building work began on an immense extension to the original house, running along the high ground towards the west. Extra wings were added, notably the one at the west end, which was built to contain the spring. During this period hydropathic hotels were popular throughout Europe. The wealthy flocked to them to refresh bodily energy and gain all-round healthful feelings, by drinking the water or bathing themselves in it.”’
She briefly held up the page for me to see a photograph. It was black and white, slightly out of focus, a reproduction of an ancient picture postcard. It showed a row of small cottages fronting a long hillside. The building she was talking about loomed up on the hill behind them, a Victorian pile, with steep roofs, gables and spires, picture windows. Trees grew everywhere.
‘“The new building extension,”’ she went on, abandoning the embarrassing fake accents, ‘“included a pump room, an immersion pool, steam baths and exercise and massage areas. The central part of the extension was created as an eighty-eight-room luxury hotel, with many saloons and drawing rooms. All the main bedrooms faced the view towards the north – lesser rooms were situated at the rear of the hotel, and this was where the guests’ servants stayed.”’ She lowered the sheet of paper. ‘Do you Brits still take your servants with you on vacations?’
‘I used to,’ I said. ‘But I’ve had to let most of mine go. I now only have a couple of manservants and a housemaid. And the chef, of course.’
She carried on.
‘“In June 1879 the building reopened as the Kyles Hydropathic Hotel, and was soon functioning successfully as a luxury resort for factory owners, eminent lawyers, wealthy retailers and so on, from the prosperous industrial belt of Central Scotland, as well as attracting a steady stream of important guests from England and parts of Europe.” Why don’t I like the sound of these people?’
‘You don’t have to like them,’ I said. ‘They’re all dead now.’
‘“When not taking the waters the guests had many other diversions open to them. There were tennis courts, a croquet lawn, a nine-hole golf course, a swimming pool, and extensive planned gardens. Walks and pony rides in the surrounding wild terrain, the interior of the island, could be arranged. Top chefs from Europe were in charge of the kitchens, and the service of the general staff throughout the rest of the hotel was rated as excellent.”
‘OK, this is where it gets more interesting. “The hydro operated until the outbreak of the First World War, when it had to close. It reopened after the war, but at a much reduced level. Although the mineral springs remained available, the hotel now operated on a more conventional, modern basis.
‘“When the Second World War began in 1939 the hotel was again forced to close. It was requisitioned by the Royal Navy, and the building became officially known as HMS Varbel.” They turned a hotel into a ship?’
‘That’s a convention of the Navy,’ I said. ‘They designate their land-based establishments as ships.’
‘“Operating from Varbel, men of the Royal Navy served throughout the war with distinction and bravery. They were mostly assigned to mini-submarines and two-man steerable torpedoes. Their most notable success was the immobilization of the German battleship Tirpitz, in Alta Fjord in Norway”.’
She turned the sheet. She skimmed a few lines.
Then she read: ‘“At the end of the war the Navy returned the hotel building to the owners. They left it immaculately clean and undamaged, but because of the building’s great age, and the fact that during the war it was impossible to carry out building repairs, the hydro was unsuitable for use as a hotel. The cost of renovation was so high that the building remained unused. That is its present condition. It remains standing but for now is unused.” Great! We can use it.’
‘What’s great about that? And how did you get hold of this information?’
‘I sent off for it. We’re looking for a spooky old place to hold next year’s convention. We thought a Scottish castle would be ideal, but this sounds even better.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said.
Her name was Lil, and I was in love with her. She was in her early thirties, working for a large book publishing corporation in New York City, but when she let her hair down she and some of her friends would spend long weekends at conventions. I knew exactly what kind of conventions she liked to go to. She wanted me to be at the next one with her.
It was not to happen – in under a year’s time Lil would be dead.
Two people I had known
There came unexpected memories of two people I had once known. One of them was from the margins of my life, one from my heart. There was no direct connection between them, or none that I knew of apart from my knowing them both, yet the news that one of them had died reminded me inexplicably of the death of the other.
I had woken up to a feeling of peacefulness. I was alone in my bed – my life partner Jeanne was away and would not be back for another three days. The house was quiet because Jeanne had taken our two young sons with her. There was none of the normal background domestic chaos of making the boys get out of bed, urging them to put on their clothes, the clatter of breakfast and rushing around and forgetting things and occasional shouts and doors closed noisily.
Whenever Jeanne was away I slept with the room’s curtains open, because of the view of the firth. Jeanne said that daylight made her wake up too soon, but I liked to turn over and look out across the calm waters, glimpse the first ferry setting out for the mainland. This morning the sun was shining, and across the firth the mountains of Argyll were dark and green.
The radio had been on all night at a low volume, but I turned it up to hear the news. Halfway through the headlines the death was announced of Kyril Alexeyevich Tatarov, the Russian-born mathematician. I was unexpectedly moved by the news, because although I had met Tatarov only a couple of times, he was a great man and I had in fact actually met him at a time when any kind of meeting was almost impossible to arrange. He was a complex and contradictory man, intelligent off the scale because no scale existed for his sort of mind, but odd and with many human foibles. Twice he had shown me small and unsought kindnesses.
I waited for the full story to follow the headline, thinking about him. The reporter came on and spoke well and accurately of Tatarov: he was a brilliant theoretician, a geometrist and topologist, winner of the Fields Medal, the Clay Millennium Prize, born in the Soviet Union in 1932 and exiled with his family to the USA when still a small child. His father was a statistician, his mother a teacher. Tatarov had spent most of his adult life working in an American university, his unique career and achievements largely unrecognized outside the closed intellectual world in which he thrived.
Tatarov’s sensational and unexplained disappearance in 2006 was mentioned of course – it was completely out of character and one of the few events of his life that had become known in the wider world. At the time the mystery had been reported and followed in news media on both sides of the Atlantic. Much of the speculation about him was salacious and inappropriate: rumours of a femme fatale, an exchange of secrets with a former KGB agent, a plot to kidnap him back to Russia, and so on. None of this was remotely true, but his disappearance was never explained.
The alarm was raised one day when he failed to appear for a seminar at the Courant Institute in New York. He had said nothing about travel plans, his university apartment was locked, he left no note or explanation. Because of political upheavals in Russia at the time there was speculation he had been abducted by the KGB or FSB – no denial came from Moscow, which for a time seemed to support the idea, but he was not produced or paraded for the press as a refugee from the West. If this had happened it seemed like an odd time for it, so long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Confusing everything, the FBI released a computerized airline ticket for a flight on the day he disappeared – on the ticket he was identified as taking a journey from New York’s JFK to London Heathrow, with an onward flight to Glasgow. That particular part of the mystery was never definitely resolved, although a reporter on the New York Times later traced the ticket code to another passenger booked on the same flight, someone who was not connected in any way but who had not checked in on the day.
After a few weeks Tatarov quietly reappeared at the Courant, saying or explaining nothing, and returned to his work.
The incident inspired a feature film not long after. It was not a good film and it was soon forgotten, but it did have a starring role for a great actor and it had made me some extra money. Because I wrote the screenplay I was partly, not entirely, responsible for the film’s mediocrity. I had never written for the screen before, and have not done so since. I was hired to write the screenplay because I had published a couple of magazine features about Tatarov, which constituted most of the information about him that was on record. The producer was not to know, and I intended that he should never find out, that I knew the true story of Tatarov’s disappearance. I was, however, bound by a promise of confidentiality.
The first time I met Kyril Tatarov was for a meeting which lasted less than an hour, one afternoon when I was granted an interview with him. It took place in 1996. I was a young journalist and Tatarov was a tenured professor at the Courant Institute in New York. He was then in his mid sixties.
It turned out to be a difficult meeting – how do you prepare for an interview with a genius? I did not do well. He assumed I knew more about mathematics than I really did. His manner of speaking was discursive and full of references to matters I knew nothing about. He spoke quickly, leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed or half-closed, the flow coming unstoppably for several minutes, but then halting without warning. He expected my next question to follow at once. He was absorbed in establishing the proof of something called the Pèlerin Conjecture, a topological knot theory, which had remained unproven since the postulate was developed by the great French mathematician Jean-Louis Pèlerin in the early twentieth century.
I was not a mathematician but a journalist working as a freelance for a general interest science magazine. I had done what preliminary research I could into the conjecture, but I was ill-equipped to engage with Tatarov on any serious level. The Pèlerin was an arcane problem within a discipline that was itself a deep enigma to most people. Professor Tatarov, to give him credit, quickly sensed this, and in his own way he tried to simplify and explain what he was saying, but his own way was not even close to mine. At the end of the interview he offered me a few notes which one of his students had written, in the hope they might elucidate a little more. I went away from the Courant embarrassed and humbled, but also feeling rather fond of Professor Tatarov.
Afterwards I managed to transcribe the recording of what Tatarov had said with sufficient accuracy for the interview to make sense, perhaps seeming facile to other mathematicians but comprehensible to ordinary readers. After the piece appeared Professor Tatarov himself made no complaint about errors, but to judge by some adverse comments he made during the course of the interview about the magazine I worked for I assumed he would probably not read the article. However, my career as a science correspondent did gain a little credibility from the interview, and a few weeks later a nationally distributed magazine offered me a contract for regular work. I felt indebted to Professor Tatarov for this.
The brief radio obituary also mentioned the one other time Tatarov came to public awareness. He had been nominated for the Fields Medal and tried to decline it, but then changed his mind after persuasion and pressure from his colleagues. A year or so later he won the Clay Millennium Prize – again he tried to refuse it, and once again gave way to the friendly persuasion of those around him. Then he was rumoured to be in line for a Nobel, although there was no separate Nobel for mathematicians. He was interviewed on television. The first questions were about his disappearance in 2006, but he refused to answer. He was asked why he kept trying to decline the most prestigious awards in his academic calling. He was repeatedly urged to say if he would accept the Nobel, if awarded.
Professor Tatarov was enraged by the persistent questioning, and became incoherent in his answers. His general physical appearance, his chaotic hair, staring blue eyes and untamed eyebrows, uneven teeth, florid countenance, briefly made him notorious as an archetype of a certain kind of reclusive academic. His behaviour made him seem erratic, brilliant, engaging, monstrous, slightly mad.
The interview was cut short, but almost immediately afterwards it went viral on the internet. This was where I saw it, and it made me feel sorry for him. He was unworldly, highly specialized, preoccupied with many complex ideas and concepts, and totally ill equipped to deal with lighthearted banter from a television presenter.
That was Kyril Tatarov, who had just died. He was in his early nineties.
But then there was the other. Why Tatarov’s death at a great age should remind me once again of Lil, of Lilian Viklund, was not immediately clear. As people they could hardly be less alike, their deaths were now more than two decades apart, and in my heart and memory they occupied completely different places.
At the end of the news bulletin I switched off the radio and I continued to lie in bed with memories of Lil sweeping in on me, pushing aside my thoughts of Tatarov.
I had not thought about Lil for a long time, at least for many months, but I had been profoundly upset at the time of her death.
She was my girlfriend, she died, I was bereaved, but I moved on and built a life without her. Stating it as coldly as that is a true way to describe what happened, but in reality everything to do with her death was traumatic and shocking. Lil was my lover, my friend, my intimate, and until the day she died I assumed she was to be my future. Then she was taken from me with violence and cruelty.
The years following her death drifted by, the shock of the news and the upset of the loss diminishing, but slowly, so agonizingly slowly. Gradually I began to think of her less obsessively. I started to reshape my life without her. When one’s lover is murdered so young I suspect it is never possible to recover fully. You are not able to forget completely, never able to throw off an infinitesimal grain of hope. Because although I did eventually manage to bury my feelings of terrible loss, the grief, the loneliness, I was never allowed closure. I knew she was dead, I knew she had been killed, but I never had proof. The people responsible were not taken before a court, her body was not found. That tiny, always unsettling, grain of hope remained.
A few years after Lil was murdered, I met Jeanne and she shortly became my partner. Although we never married, Jeanne and I had been living together for years. We were raising two sons, Seth and Louis, who were of school age. Jeanne and I both followed our careers in the context of a busy and absorbing family life. Like every other long-established couple we shared many things – a home, holidays, books, paintings, music, memories, the children above all.
Lily Viklund, and my long affair with her, moved further away into my personal past. I could never forget Lil entirely, but in the press of contented life with my family and the turning cycle of the years she became increasingly a figure from before.
Even so – I vividly remembered how she looked, and somewhere in my study there were dozens of photographs of her, stashed in an old box. I could never forget her voice, her American accent, the way she stood and moved and dressed, the political matters that aggravated her, the passions of her beliefs and, oddly, her love of trivia, old TV programmes and homemade jewellery. She was a subtle and complicated woman, often mercurial in her moods, sometimes annoying and frustrating, but always loyal and loving. And of course her sudden death at the hands of others, when still so young, gave all memories of her a painful, unignorable impact.
Boats and islands
Jeanne and I lived on a small island in an inland sea: the Firth of Clyde. The island was called Bute, or Eilean Bhòid in its Gaelic original. The only town on the island, formerly called Rothesay, reverted to its Gaelic name: Baile Bhòid. After the Scottish UDI many of the western isles, and the smaller settlements in the Highlands, had chosen to revert to their Gaelic names, a kind of folk reaction against the technocratic and progressively modern industrial society that was transforming the country. After a short but difficult transition period, Scotland rejoined the EU as a separate nation. The old forced union with England, to the disadvantage of the Scottish, was over.
For Jeanne and me it was the best of many options: Jeanne was born in Edinburgh but had spent most of her adult life in England. For her it was a return. I was English, born in London, but my maternal grandparents were Scottish. For me it was an exploration of my personal heritage. Our migration to the north meant we were able to bring up our boys as Scots, as full Europeans. So far the plan was working well.
That morning I was alone in the house, free to laze in the bed a little longer than usual. Jeanne had taken the children to visit her mother, who lived in Morningside, a district of Edinburgh. I had slipped into a harmless, temporary routine of sleeping with a radio at my bedside, curtains open all night so I could enjoy the light on the bay in the morning, sometimes listening to music as I fell asleep, always turning it off once I was fully awake. I liked the sound of quiet voices in the night, the classical music, news reports from around the world. I slept through most of it but it was a comfort to have it there. The radio helped fend off, equalize, the feeling of being alone. The house was too static, too full of silence, whenever Jeanne and the kids were away.
I missed Jeanne every time she made one of these trips, which since her mother’s health began to decline the previous year had become a regular duty for her. An undercurrent to our lives at present was the growing awareness that Lucinda, Jeanne’s mother, should no longer be alone, that she might have to move to Bhòid to be with us.
Overnight, the two car ferries that connected with the mainland were moored at the pier a short distance from our bedroom window. At six o’clock the first of them was brought back to mechanical life by the crew. The starter motor of the vessel’s main generator began turning somewhere deep inside the engine room. It sometimes woke me up, but often I was already awake, waiting for the signal sound. The steering engines would start soon after. The ferries were equipped with azimuthal rudder propellers for navigation in the shallow harbours, and whenever the ship was taking on passengers and vehicles these engines were turned towards the beam, holding the hull firmly against the quay wall. They emitted a quiet but insistent noise, reaching me across the harbour waters like the contented mumbling of a large resting animal.
The generator brought life to the workings of the ship. I imagined it recharging batteries, starting the pumps, waking instruments, booting the navigation computers, turning the radar antennae, sending a flow of electrical power to the saloon and cabins, ventilating the vehicle deck and cargo holds.
The first crossing to the mainland was scheduled at six twenty-five, by which time the waiting cars and trucks had driven across the ramp and into the vehicle deck. The foot passengers tramped at the same time across the companionway, a climbing zigzag of sloping metal passages above the space between the ferry terminal and the upper saloon of the ship. The dark shapes of these people crossed behind the translucent windows, enigmatically lit from above. They were almost certainly people I knew, or at least would recognize from seeing them about the streets of Baile Bhòid. Soon I would be clambering up the same sloping passages when I caught a later ship.
It was pleasant to lie there, feeling the town slowly come alive, thinking about Lil again, remembering her not as dead but as she had been when alive. The distance in time removed any sense of guilt about doing so. Such memories were pleasant, but the way she came to an end always loomed over them.
Jeanne knew about Lil. She knew about our intense relationship, the plans and hopes we had – she knew how Lil had died, the traumatic impact her death had had on me. Jeanne and I were in love from our first few days together, and I could never have kept these things from her. Almost straight away she sensed I was harbouring something from the past. I wanted to unburden myself, but knew it was an imposition, so I tried to hold it back. It did not take Jeanne long to make it possible to let go and in the end I told her everything I could about Lil. I left nothing out: what had attracted me to her, the plans we had made, the problems we had tried to overcome. I tried to be objective, calm, practical, true, sensitive to Jeanne’s feelings, not self-pitying. Inevitably, there came a release of the emotion which I had been suppressing and could no longer control. Jeanne said nothing, advised nothing, held me close.
Why, though, had the news of Tatarov’s death brought this reminder? He had had a long life and a great life – he died two days ago. Lil was thirty-one when she died, might have had a long or a great life had she been given the choice, but she died young, more than two decades ago.
Crossing the border
I needed to catch the ferry at eight o’clock, so I soon climbed out of bed, showered, shaved, dressed, took a quick breakfast of a sweet pastry I had bought the previous evening, washed it down with lukewarm instant coffee. I checked the house was secured, then walked the short distance to the harbour and went to the ferry terminal.
While the ship sailed smoothly across the firth I made a call to Jeanne in Edinburgh, confirmed I was leaving as planned and that nothing had come up to change my plans. I would be home the next day, before her. She put Seth on the phone, the older of my two boys. He wanted to be home, he said, Gran was ill and making him depressed. His voice was hushed – I sensed him turning away, holding the phone hard against his ear. He was on a school break and naturally felt he was losing valuable free time. Jeanne came back on and said she would probably stay for another night, perhaps two. Lucinda had developed a troublesome cough and was breathing with difficulty.
An hour and a half later, after the train ride from the mainland ferry port, I was at Glasgow Airport, queuing with hundreds of other people to pass through the English border. There was a treaty border post of this sort at every Scottish airport where there were flights to the south. When my turn came I showed my Caledonian passport, hoping the English police officer would not notice that I had been born south of the border and ask me the questions I had been asked several times before on earlier flights. This time he did not – an immense line of other passengers was behind me. The officer went slowly through my papers, finally making me touch the fingerprint scanner. He spoke with flat, deliberate Yorkshire vowels. After my fingerprint was scanned he stared at the computer screen for several seconds, not blinking. He typed some letters, maybe words, maybe a code, waited again for a response. I heard my flight being announced while I stood there.
Then I was through, technically across the English border and no longer in Scotland, onward to the second delay. A maze of roped walkways had been set up across the hall, making the long line of us snake to and fro, shuffling past each other again and again. Everyone seemed tense. We came at last to the checking of the passport and the boarding pass, then the security machines and searches, the retinal scan, residence identity check, jackets and shoes off, belt removed, cabin luggage weighed and x-rayed, phones, laptops and tablets examined or searched separately. This time I was not r. . .
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