It is high summer, with daylight until past mid-evening, scorchingly hot and we are on holiday: so I have been thinking of death. This is not a morbid reaction to happy holidays but the result of deciding to load Agatha Christie’s Poirot oeuvre on to my Kindle prior to travel for some holiday reading and my subsequent romping through the good, the bad and the even worse ones.
Also close to Agatha’s heart and to those of a number of popular writers of the pre-war period is the mysterious unknown; the hand of fate. I confess to a certain interest in it myself, mostly because I enjoy the way that cynical friends sneer and scorn until the conversation gets deeper and longer when either they look agitated or suddenly start revealing strange experiences of their own.
Anyway, having finished one book I noticed that Kindle was recommending some other authors it had deduced I might also enjoy reading. One was John Buchan, whose CV comes from another age: barrister, Member of Parliament, Director of Intelligence and Governor General of Canada. However, most of us probably encountered him watching one or all three of the film versions of The 39 Steps; he, of course, being the author of the book. Well, he also wrote a book entitled The Gap in the Curtain and it was either reading that or another trip to the beach to have my body laughed at by the jeunesse dorée. I chose the book.
It is a story about a Silk who visits a country house, where he encounters a professor who wants him and a certain number of other houseguests to take part in an experiment where, after psychological and physical preparation, they are asked to try and concentrate on one paragraph from the pages of The Times precisely one year ahead. They do so and some of them read specific information about themselves. The novel continues with their individual stories up to that day, one year ahead.
I became very thoughtful; but it was not the story: that was terrible. The chance of four people each coincidentally featuring in the same edition of The Times was and is, to say the least, on the low side. What was giving me pause was that I had myself had what still seems to me to be a “gap in the curtain” experience eight years ago.
I was leading a charming senior junior called Thomas Wintle. We were defending a man charged with a major wine fraud. For once, we had a rather good defence, in that our client was almost certainly innocent. During his cross-examination by Rico Smythe QC, then a member of Gutteridge Chambers, but later to leave when I could not guarantee him a new Porsche every year, I suddenly felt violently ill. My head was splitting in two and I found myself watching a twin screen version of this otherwise uneventful interrogation: one actually happening and one apparently a delusion.
In the delusional version, Rico Smythe asked a very specific question, but rather an odd one and not along the lines he had previously been cross-examining: “and if I were to go over right now to where you told the police you were three summers ago, namely Helsinki, I would find hotel records to support that visit, would I?” Then normal service was resumed. The vision left.
I should make clear to any subsequent reader of my diaries that I have whatever the direct opposite of paranormal antennae is. I have no sense of the unknown myself above inheriting my mother’s gift for sensing incipient thunderstorms, for which there is a perfectly natural explanation to do with air pressure. Thus, I was shaken. This was too real simply to be imagination and I was aware that apparent experiences of déjà vu can herald unpleasant and serious medical conditions.
Although I still felt nauseous, I had to communicate what I had heard to my junior immediately, otherwise it would be just my word, because I knew beyond any doubt what was coming. I whispered the exact question I had heard asked. Thomas looked bemused and said “why would he ask that?” Seconds later, word for word, Smythe did ask that question.
People have suggested it was an obvious thing to ask. It was not. Some have said that perhaps real time runs a little ahead of perceived time, like live phone-in programmes. Perhaps. As for Wintle, to this day he believes that Smyth and I planned it all. We did not. Perhaps I do need that swim, after all.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.