Nagoya Writes

February 10, 2008

The Great Escape by Dave Stone

Filed under: Issue: 2002,Prose,Stone — usbengoshi @ 11:24 am

Eduard Caron had a staunch friend in S’mon Fuchheim, and as with many such relationships, their friendship pitted them often against one another. They were forever competing in one way or another, whether achievement in the various sports at which they dabbled, discovery of some secret site in the city, or, less frequently, in their studies – more often, it has to be said, through cheating than through honest work.

On this occasion, the object of their competition was a book, and it was S’mon who was the initiator. Though no great aficionados of literature, the two were as drawn to adventure and action as any other boys their age. And so it was, on a breezy morning in April, that S’mon rushed breathlessly into his friend’s room and waved before his bemused nose the lurid cover of a paperback novel. ‘The Great Escape’, proclaimed the cover, above an indifferently executed picture of an improbably gothic castle, perched atop a set of threatening cliffs. The name of the author was almost as large as the title itself, as is so often the case with this sort of fiction.

‘You have to read this,’ S’mon predictably exhorted Eduard. ‘It’s a fantastic book.’

Eduard knew that there had to be more to it than this, and his instincts were soon proved right.

‘There are three reasons why you must read it,’ S’mon continued. ‘First, the hero’s got the same name as you, though that’s the least interesting reason.’

Eduard knew that S’mon’s casual dismissal was intended to distract from the fact that here was an unannounced competition that had already been won, for they had found no book in which S’mon starred, although there had been a wretched villain by the name of Gert Fuchheim in the adventure story they had read the previous year. But S’mon breathlessly continued:

‘Secondly, it is the most ingenious story I’ve ever read: the hero is captured near the beginning, and the story is about his attempts to escape from the prison in which he is incarcerated, but really it’s a mystery, as it says at the start that he has escaped, and the reader can work out how if he cares to think about it, and’’

‘Wait a moment,’ interjected Eduard, ‘I’m not following any of this. Is it an adventure or a mystery?’

‘It’s both, really, but the clever thing is the way that he escapes’ and the third reason you have to read it is that I managed to work out the answer!’

‘If you can work it out, then I’m sure I can. But you didn’t cheat?’

‘Of course not! And that’s the clever thing. Even if you skip to the end without reading it through you still won’t know how he escapes. But all the clues are presented one by one, and’ anyway, read it and see.’

Eduard did not especially have anything to do that day, but it was beneath his dignity to accede to the challenge without at least token resistance, so he complained that he had planned a fishing expedition to the canal they had discovered beyond the grey-painted wall on one of their previous adventures. But he had to admit to being intrigued, so he did not argue for long.

‘It’s not a long book, so you should be able to read it in a few days. But I wonder whether you’ll find the answer?’ said S’mon, as a parting shot.

‘Don’t worry,’ retorted Eduard, mustering his most confident smile. ‘I’ll probably be able to tell you tomorrow morning.’

He regretted saying it as soon as it left his lips. Such a challenge must be honoured, and he had now committed himself. He could tell that S’mon knew this from the broad smile that met his own, and from the way his friend ran off, jumped up onto the low wall, and then jumped down again before racing away. He must read the whole book today, or as much of it as was necessary to extract the secret answer. He thumbed dubiously through its pages. Could he read that much in a single day? There was only one way to find out.

Outside, the sun was shining, and despite the wind it was a day that promised great things. He would not ordinarily choose to spend such a day cooped up at home, but there was nothing for it. With a deep breath, he started to read.

As he turned to the first page and briefly scanned the tedious details of publication, irrelevant to his ends, the thought occurred that S’mon may have been lying. But it didn’t seem likely. While any subterfuge was justified in dealing with others, there was a fierce code of honour between the two boys which gave their competition the firm base it required.

Eduard was of the school of thought that held that reading a book entailed casting one’s eyes over all the words it contained, and that to skip anything on the flimsy pretext that it was, for example, a mere advertisement for the publisher’s other works, was a breach of the unwritten rule of reading. He therefore took in the description of the author, and was surprised to learn that the man had formerly worked as an inspector of poultry, acquiring fame only in the last decade of his life.

Just as S’mon had said, the story itself opened with the narrator, coincidentally also the hero, saying that he had contrived a marvellous escape from possibly the world’s most secure prison, and challenging the reader to discover how. Eduard liked mystery stories, and part of him was uncomfortable with being told the outcome of a story at the beginning. Where was the thrill of a story about incarceration and escape if the outcome was in no doubt? But he pressed on through these introductory pages, ostensibly set at some remove in time from the events of the story itself.

He felt less unsettled once the main action commenced, featuring as it did a war – not a great war, but one of the more interesting little pointless conflicts that is forever spicing up the life of adventurers the world over. There was some pithy discussion of weaponry which, Eduard noted approvingly, demonstrated that the author’s unpromising background had not prevented him from acquiring a sound knowledge of the important things.

The narrative hotted up as the hero undertook a special mission behind enemy lines, and it rapidly transpired that the mission was a trap, a device for securing the hero’s capture. He had been betrayed by his own superior, who was being blackmailed by a woman. His capture was planned not only to remove him as a playing piece from the great board of war, but also to secure certain intelligence that he possessed, intelligence that might conceivably tip the scales of the whole conflict in favour of his enemy. Thus, rather than being summarily executed, he was conveyed to the castle in which he was to spend the rest of the book incarcerated, and which adorned the cover.

Eduard took the opportunity to survey the cover again, and was pained to observe that the artist had paid insufficient attention to detail. For where the description in the book clearly indicated that the castle was relatively plain, with four towers and nothing but loopholes in its walls, the castle on the cover was a labyrinth of towers and buttresses, machicolations and crenelations, with pointed arched windows like eyes in the upper towers.

It was a mystery to Eduard why such matters were permitted. Any fool who had read the book could see that the castle on the cover, for all that it was perched on cliffs which might conceivably be those of the island described within, did not resemble the actual prison described. Why was the publisher not swamped with complaints, and the artist duly punished?

But he had little time to spare on such ruminations. The mystery awaited him. Eduard hoped to glean from the description of the castle some clue as to how it could be escaped, but he found little to help him. The walls were undeniably robust, and the physical situation – atop a sheer cliff on a small island, accessible only by a single approach – seemed equally unpromising. Escape would entail not only fleeing the precincts of the prison itself, but also finding some means of leaving the island. And now that he came to think of it, Eduard realised that it would also be necessary to make a considerable journey through the country of his enemies in order to reach safety: though the talents of the protagonists certainly seemed up to such an enterprise.

Perhaps, then, the solution lay not so much in the realm of the physical – of tunnels, scaled walls or cunningly contrived mechanical means of flight – but in the personnel of the castle? For if the capture had been achieved through betrayal of one kind, surely it was possible that the same stratagem could be turned on its users, and that one of the castles’ inhabitants could be suborned to the cause of escape?

Eduard was keen to learn more of the guards – and of the possibility of other inmates – when he was interrupted by the announcement of the mid-day meal. It came as a shock. He had already lost the morning, and yet he didn’t seem to have penetrated very much of the story at all. He had, as yet, only the briefest of acquaintances with the prison which constituted the puzzle he must solve, and the overwhelming bulk of the pages still lay ahead of him.

Thus he was restless and disagreeable at the dinner table, and his manners earned him more than one rebuke. The book was so much on his mind that he found himself turning the conversation repeatedly to his own ends, asking about prisons, and famous escapes, in the hope that he might obtain some clue. By the time he was finally excused, and raced to his room, he had to admit he had been furnished with a trove of possibilities, but he could see no way in which any of them related to the problem at hand. As he took up the book once more, he resigned himself to the possibility that the seeds of the answer must lie within the story.

The commandant of the castle was a truculent fellow by the name of Yorum, and Eduard rapidly dismissed the possibility that any help was to be found at the top of the custodial hierarchy. The commandant revelled in his position, and as is so often the case with those unfit for the true duty of war, missed no opportunity to express his power in physical, painful form upon those unfortunates who had been delivered into his care. It was with obvious reluctance that he commented that he was under orders not to harm our hero, but he added more cheerfully that there were those coming to the island who would quickly remove any pleasure that might have derived from this temporary respite. For the information that might win the war was to be extracted from the prisoner, and by any means necessary.

The guards were hardly any more promising. While a nation at war usually assigns to the duty of warder those who are unfit for battle, by reason of temperament or training, at this castle the guards were grim-faced and efficient. There was a rigid rule that no guard was ever to be alone in the company of a prisoner, so in a sense the guards were guarding each other as well as their charges.

Apart from the other inmates, there were no other inhabitants of the island. So what of those inmates? Was there perhaps a secret organisation amongst them, an escape committee? If so, it was to be of no avail to the prisoner, for he was rigidly segregated. Now and again he would see one or two of the other unfortunates, but he was never permitted to exchange so much as a word with them. Attempts at communication by such subtle means as sign language and cruder gestures met with abject failure – save for the occasional crude gesture in reply.

Eduard began to see how this prison might indeed be the most challenging on the planet. So now it was all the more important to uncover some chinks in the encircling walls. There was one, it was true. The castle had to be supplied, every month, by boat. The security involved in this was as tight as could be expected but well, it was a faint ray of hope.

What else might there be? He turned his mind methodically to the enumeration of possibilities. The castle was built on a cliff overlooking the sea. Might there not be caves in those cliffs? But if so, how to reach them, when there were no windows from which to climb? A tunnel was an obvious, and attractive possibility, although the castle’s stone foundations suggested it would take more time and effort than was available to a single man in a single lifetime.

As more and more of the details of the prison were revealed, more and more avenues were closed off. It was an infinitely frustrating process, and yet despite being thwarted at every turn, some force impelled Eduard to continue. A challenge was a challenge, and must be met. Surely the solution could be found if only he could think hard enough about it.

As if the mere fact of incarceration were not enough, the torture promised by Commandant Yorum soon materialised. Those who came to extract information could not be dignified with the word ‘men’. To their victim they were slithering sacks of evil, corpse-eyed followers of an abhorrent doctrine. Their goal was to obtain the information they required, and to employ any means to do so. There was no moral agency in their actions; it was pure expedience, the purest expedience, and an end to philosophy, religion and civilisation.

At first they employed threats, yet even the blankness of their dead-eyes could not conceal that they knew they would fail. It was as if they were bound by some arcane sacerdotal rescript: the inescapable ritual of an anti-religion. First, the opening act of non-worship, the threats. Upon the ineffectuality of mere threats being demonstrated, the loss of temper (according to ritual) resulting in a painful flesh wound. A marking; a promise of worse to come.

All men have a breaking point. Eduard knew that. Escape had to come sooner rather than later. There was no point considering the concealed tool, the tunnel dug secretly over days and weeks and months. It had to be soon.

As he sat in his room, running over the possibilities again, the first threads of true despair began to appear. Could it be that he had truly been betrayed, that this really was an inescapable prison, with no solution? Such a possibility, easily considered and dismissed when there are still new ideas to come, begins to assume an almost living presence as time passes with the sand-clock of hope draining away.

Escape, escape, escape.

There must be a way, there had to be a way. Every fibre of his being believed that. In a sense, he started to realise, it was coming to define him. This was who he was: the one who believed that escape was possible, that a solution could be found.

He paced his room, he banged on the walls in frustration, he cursed the moment he had accepted the assignment which had led him to this pass.

From such strain comes delirium: the state that we call genius or, when it suits us, madness. From the insoluble problem emerges the most powerful, original answer. From incarceration, freedom.

Eduard Caron walked free into the dusk, a smile on his face.

***Dave Stone began his career as a music journalist, though he has also written on politics and a diversity of other subjects for underground newspapers such as the International Times. While his controversial point of view and no-nonsense approach to music criticism have earned him the opprobrium of many, he has nevertheless carved a small niche for himself in the field of amateur publishing, no mean achievement for a fictional character.

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