There is a character in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon named Charles Flitcraft. In this piece of detective fiction set around 1930 on the west coast of America, Flitcraft makes a brief cameo appearance which seems completely irrelevant to the rest of the narrative. Hammett’s private detective Sam Spade meets a potential client, Miss Wonderly, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Miss O’Shaughnessy is a femme fatale of the type so powerfully depicted by Barbara Stanwyck in 1940s Hollywood noir, like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. These ladies breeze into the office of the private dick, and describe some terrible fix they’ve landed themselves in, with that beguiling mix of vulnerability and sexual allure. “I was frantic!” Apropos of nothing at all, and without any preliminary introduction, Spade tells Miss O’Shaughnessy about Flitcraft, a man he was once hired to find. Mr Flitcraft was an unremarkable real estate agent in Tacoma, married with a family, successful, well off, and quite content, who one day was walking past a building site during his lunch break when a large beam fell from a great height and landed on the sidewalk right beside him. It might have killed him, but all he got was a scratch on his cheek from the ricochet of a fragment of pavement. This apparently entirely random event changed Flitcraft’s life completely. He had briefly been permitted to open up the lid on life, peer in, and see how the machinery worked. What he saw disturbed him. He had thought that he was in harmony with life; now he realised that he had hardly been living at all. Subsequently, he vanished without trace.
In fact, he drifted to the northwest and – now that beams had stopped falling on his head – took up a life in Spokane which was really a replica of the life he had abandoned. He found another job, another wife, a way of life not dissimilar to the one he had abandoned, and he started another family. When Sam Spade tracked him down, Flitcraft expressed no remorse for what he had done, and indeed he did not consider his behaviour to be in any way remarkable. He had left his previous wife and family comfortably off, and in any case his first wife did not want him back. So he simply carried on with his new life.
Flitcraft never reappears in The Maltese Falcon, and his significance to the overall structure of the book remains obscure. In the Humphrey Bogart movie, Hollywood stuck closely to Hammett’s dialogue. Yet I don’t recall that the Flitcraft episode appears on film. I would have loved to have heard Bogie recount that story.
The idea of the reinvention of a life is a recurrent theme in literature, and indeed it seems to conjure a deep yearning experienced at least once by most of us. I will go to bed a caterpillar, slough off this noxious, slimy integument of my personality, and wake up a butterfly. Nicodemus visited Our Lord by night, to ask what he had to do in order to turn his life around. It turned out that he had to be born again. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare casts Viola ashore after a storm, like a piece of jetsam, on the edge of the unknown land of Illyria. She turns herself into Cesario. Here is the ice cold shock of recognition of the chance for a complete metamorphosis. In Julius Caesar Act IV Scene III, Brutus says
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
We are beguiled by the narrative of a person who has recognised an opportunity, embraced it, and turned his life upside down. “It was such a small thing. And yet, it changed everything. I discovered my meaning and purpose, and I never looked back.” But can we really tell the difference between fortune on the one hand, and shallows and miseries on the other? Recall Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken, the idea of a crossroads, and a choice. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera makes the point that you can never know whether, faced with a binary choice, you chose the better option, because you can never know where the other choice would have led you.
But you know, Milan Kundera was wrong. I have this odd notion; I find it difficult to articulate. You see, I took the other path. The path not taken.
After I finished my degree in English Language and Literature, I was completely at a loss as to what to do. The obvious thing was to do a year of teacher training. After all, if I were at a loose end, I might as well accrue another qualification, and leave at least one option open. I got the admission forms for the local teacher training college, and sat down, pen in hand.
I never filled that form in. I went off at a complete tangent and became a medical student. I sometimes wonder how I would have turned out if I had gone to the teachers’ college. Where would I be now? I decided one night to track myself down.
I wasn’t very hard to find. I’d barely moved fifty yards from the family home, a terraced house in a handsome tree lined avenue in a leafy west end suburb of our town. I noticed I’d crossed the road from the grey sandstone in the west to the rather swanky red sandstone in the east. I rang the doorbell and my alter ego opened the door.
“I had an idea you might turn up.”
“Like the bad penny.”
“You’d better come in.”
Parquet flooring in the hall. The familiar layout of the living room with its high ceiling and peripheral frieze. A fireplace with a wood burning stove. He bade me sit down.
“You wouldn’t by any chance have anything stronger?”
He handed me the squat crystal glass with its puddle of gold. I took a sip. Rich and mellow, with warm notes of baked apple and toffee. Cardhu. I glanced about me at the family photographs on the mantel, the Bösendorfer in the bay window, and flowers, the picture rail hanging a few of the Scottish Colourists; and books, but no clutter. I sensed a woman’s touch.
“I see you’ve prospered. What did you do?”
“I was a teacher.”
“Ah. You filled in the form. I didn’t. That must have been where we diverged. What did you teach?”
“Of course. Where?”
“The High School.”
I put down my glass so sharply that I cracked its base. “The High School? You mean you went private? You perpetuated that ghastly network of ‘useful acquaintance’ whereby the great and the good order the world according to their own requirements? How on earth did that come about?”
He smiled good-naturedly. “I got an attachment there as a probationer. I found I liked it, and I guess they liked me. So I ended up staying. Then I became principal of the department, then deputy head, and, before I knew it, the headmaster.”
“You perpetuated the status quo.”
“I don’t know about that. I hope I taught my students to love letters, and to be prepared to look at the world in a different way.”
“Like John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society?”
“Something like that.”
“I recall Mr Keating left a trail of death and destruction, and got the sack.”
“Through no fault of his own. He was hung out to dry by an angry and misguided parent, and a monster of a headmaster. Keating was a fabulous teacher, though I guess he was a little naïve. That Scottish dominie who taught Latin – was it Mr McAllister? – he tried to warn him.”
“The High School. Do you remember, at the summer orchestral courses, the High School boys had their own dorm? Stuck up bastards.”
“Since you raise the issue, I put a stop to that. So while you are content to rant and rave” – he added with a hint of mischief – “I made a difference. Besides, the school is co-ed now.”
“I beg your pardon. I have no right to berate you.”
“Who can you berate, if not yourself?”
“Did you marry?”
“Sensible fellow. The most beautiful girl in the west end. Children?”
“Two. Elizabeth and Barbara. Lizzie is a journalist and Barbara a human rights lawyer. Two grandchildren, Oscar and Emily, and a third on the way. What else can I tell you? I ran the Literary & Debating Society at school. They gave me a gong, an MBE for services to children’s literacy, I am an elder in the cathedral and sing in the choir. Jennifer and I have a subscription for the Symphony, and we like to holiday in the South of France. You see, it’s all very conventional.”
“You always wanted to write.”
“Did you publish?”
From the bookcase he selected a slim volume in hardback. He handed it to me. Faber & Faber.
“You are a poet.”
The publication was entitled “Life’s Obverse”. I leafed through it and caught just a few broken lines.
“…to wrestle the best of three falls with words…”
“…acres of wordage of doubtful intent…”
“…a device of patient lacklustre…”
I closed the volume. “Are you going to publish more?”
“No. It is no longer important to me. I no longer introspect. And now you. What did you do?”
I told him I had been the Director of a hospital emergency department in Australasia. He gave a low whistle. “Where did that come from?”
“I have no idea.”
“Mum once found us reading Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Do you remember? She asked what it was about, and we said it was about a man with a club foot who wanted to lead the Bohemian life of an artist, who suffers terribly from an unrequited love, and who eventually becomes a doctor. Mum said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be a doctor? It would suit you. You have kindness.’”
“Yes. And I said, ‘That’s the last thing I will be!’”
“Did you marry?”
“Not as such. I co-habited. It didn’t work out.”
“Not as far as I know.”
“Another surprise! I thought the University Air Squadron was bloody murder.”
“We weren’t at home in the military. But flying is more relaxed Down Under. Oddly enough, it was for me the ideal antidote to the blood and thunder of the emergency department. I would take the aircraft up to ten thousand feet over Dairy Flat, put it into a spin, and say to myself, “The only person who can get you out of this mess is you.’ After that, the department didn’t throw anything at me I couldn’t face.”
“Sounds like you constructed quite a life for yourself.”
“D’you know, it’s been completely chaotic. The idea of ‘building a life’ is totally alien to me. There’s the difference. You are committed. I am a comedian.”
“I wish I had realised that I didn’t have to take on the whole world on my own.”
“Are you still living Down Under?”
“Oh no. I threw it over. I did a Flitcraft.”
“I flitted to Camustianavaig on the Isle of Skye and wrote a book.” And I told him I had written a trilogy about the life of a troubled doc. You write about what you know. And oh yes, a nuclear farce.
“So there you are,” he said encouragingly. “You always wanted to invent a character and construct a world in which he moved, in a series of adventures. Sounds like you did it. You ‘built a life’, as you put it, in fiction. Can I freshen your glass? Jennifer will be home any minute and she will be thrilled to meet you.”
But I was already on my feet. “A step too far I think. But it was nice to meet you again.”
He stood up and took my glass, and together we went back out into the hallway.
“You know, we could do a swap. Why don’t you stay here, and I will walk out into the night?”
Much as I was tempted, I declined. “Impossible. Life’s vicissitudes change you. You go down a path and you think you are an immutable personality merely accruing experience, the way the hull of a boat accrues barnacles. But it is the experience itself that creates you and defines you. And maybe, at the end of the day, we all attain the way of life which we fundamentally desire.”
“Maybe. Call again.”
But I think we both thought that unlikely. “My love to Jennifer.” I stepped back out into the cityscape. So, my Doppelgänger had not been a sinister individual, although he may have thought otherwise of me. I remembered Schubert’s Doppelgänger in his last song cycle Schwanengesang – utterly terrifying. But there is a song in Schwanengesang even more horrific than Doppelgänger. Die Stadt.
Am fernen Horizonte
Er scheint, wie ein Nebelbild,
Die Stadt mit ihren Thürmen,
In Abenddämm’rung gehüllt…
…und zeigt mir jene Stelle,
Wo ich das Liebste verlor.
In the stillness of twilight, the distant tower-capped city appears out of the mist… and shows me that place where I lost the most beloved of all.
You might suppose a setting of such words to be nostalgic, wistful, perhaps melancholic. But spine-chilling? Schubert, like Flitcraft, must have been permitted to open up the inner workings of life and briefly look in.
One last fragment from Life’s Obverse stuck in my head. A haiku:
These well-trodden streets,
Grow less substantial to me.
Else I am the ghost.