I only realised I’d met Thaddeus before when I squeezed through the gap in the hedge and walked up the path. The entrance to his house is ridiculously narrow, with two wooden panels left and right – the left one bolted shut – a step down into a porch just big enough for one person, then a step up to a front door that can only open so far because of all the clutter. It’s such a struggle forcing my way inside, it makes me feel like a calf being born, breech, only in reverse.
The last time I’d seen Thaddeus was a couple of years ago. He’d waved to me from his armchair in the front bay window, a cheery academic in some kind of bibliographic lighthouse, surrounded by hefty works on history, art, art history, philosophy and so on. He’d been having trouble with his mobility back then – a feature of his increasing age and frailty, and the number of books lying around. As I go through into the lounge, I see that his armchair and the books are still there, the eclectic range of pictures on the walls, Frieda Kahlo, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, a yellowing certificate from the Sorbonne, and so on – but the man himself was gone, wheeled through to the backroom and the hospital bed newly installed there.
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘Welcome! Do come in! Lovely to see you! How are you?’
He seems lighter than before. Even his beard seems thinner, the flesh of his face pale and drawn down.
‘Do take a seat,’ he says. ‘I’m afraid you find me in rather straitened circumstances.’
I’ve come with Dipna the OT to review the use of a stand aid that’s been delivered, but it quickly becomes apparent that Thaddeus needs cleaning up, the bed changing and so on. A quick set of obs also makes the idea of anything other than bed care inadvisable. I set up a cleaning station with a trash bag, a bowl of warm soapy water, wipes, towel and barrier cream, and set to work, Dipna assisting with log-rolling as the clean advances and we figure out how to change the sheets. It’s a complex, ruthlessly practical business, but Thaddeus takes it all in good heart, maintaining a commentary of such a wide-ranging and erudite character it’s difficult to keep up. At one point, though, amongst all the French and Latin and what have you, I make out the name Dreyfus.
Sometimes, when you’re watching a quiz like ‘University Challenge’ or ‘Mastermind’, you instinctively respond to the toughest question because it hooks something out of you that you didn’t know you knew. And because you say it so confidently and naturally – like it was nothing at all, something anyone would know – it suddenly makes you look incredibly smart, even though for most of the time you’ve been watching the quiz with your mouth slack, because you’re too lazy to get up and look for the remote. And the truth is, maybe you saw the answer years ago, in an advert, maybe, or overheard it on the train, and it lodged for some reason, like those people who get shot in the war and it’s only years later when they go for an x-ray to investigate migraines and the radiographer points to the pale outline of a bullet. And maybe you have a whole mess of other scraps in there, too, a mess it would take a lifetime of quizzes, or maybe some kind of truth drug, to clean out.
The point is, Thaaddeus says Dreyfus.
‘Ah!’ I say, tossing a wipe. ‘The Dreyfus Affair!’
Thaddeus grabs my gloved hand.
‘I thought I recognised those eyes above the mask! Esterhazy! So it was you!’ he says. ‘Mon Dieu! Now I see it! You’ve been using your time travelling skills and your schmutzig Deutschmarks to foment bitterness about the world! Will you never be satisfied?’
‘C’est vrai!’ I tell him. ‘C’est moi!’
And I just hope he doesn’t expect any more French than that.