Octavian Underbund wasn't a name you could easily deny if cornered. You couldn't say, 'No, you must be thinking of some other Octavian Underbund.' The odds in favour of there being more than one Octavian Underbund at any given time were something in the region of Astronomical to One.
Which leads to the following question.
What parents, already obliged to call their newborn son Underbund, would even dream of further disadvantaging the poor innocent with Octavian? The answer, of course, was his parents. Their excuses for having done so differed when he first thought to quiz them on the subject in his mid teens. His mother had immediately gone all wistful and claimed, in a dreamy voice that did not suit her, that in her youth she had known a 'rather lovely Octavian', and signalled that she wished to leave it at that.
His father's version hadn't been the least bit dreamy. 'Dreamy' wasn't something Cyrus Underbund did very often at all. He'd simply shrugged, and said, 'When your ma announced that Octavian was the name she wanted for you I was in no position to argue.'
'What position was that?'
'On my back, with her sitting on my face.'
He was talking to his father now, some years later. It was June 2012, and he sat on the bed in his poky little flat above the Bridge Street joke shop, not far from his old college. In one hand he held a telephone, in the other a Schmidt-Rottluff lithograph dated 1953, which he'd been able to buy only by eating out of cans for three months. The print gave him more pleasure than any transatlantic conversation with his father was likely to. Rare as such conversations were, this one was looking fairly typical. It would get a shade less typical in three minutes when the bomb went off, but he wasn't to know that.
'Dad,' he said. 'Listen. I have something to tell you.'
It was no metropolis. Wasn't even much of a town. Never had been, even in the mid-1880s when a head count asserted that its first generation numbered one hundred and twenty-six. Back then it had seemed well named, but any outsider who happened upon it seven or so decades later might have been forgiven for considering the name something of an exaggeration, its population having decreased substantially by then. By a hundred and twenty-six in fact. So it was that the stranger who chanced upon it one fine April day of 1961 found the place not exactly teeming with life. In addition, what little of it that was still standing looked as if it wouldn't be doing so much longer.
Now this particular stranger had a problem. A problem many would envy. He'd reached a degree of wealth that most impoverished immigrants - as he once was - could only dream of. He'd become too used to buying anything he wanted, doing anything he wanted. Wasn't such wealth and ability a betrayal of his heritage? Of those who'd gone before him in his country of origin, struggling to get by every hour of their unremarkable lives? Some time before this April day he had concluded that it was indeed a form of betrayal. But what to do about it? Would he feel easier in his mind if he gave it all away? Returned to the poverty from which he'd come? But how could he do that? It would mean taking his wife down with him, and she wouldn't like that at all. She loved the position she'd grown accustomed to since their marriage. Loved the money, the trappings and fripperies, having people to do everything for her. As he saw it, there was only one way he could give it all up yet not deprive his wife and young son. A way that stayed with him from the moment it came to him. It was with this in mind that he'd taken a few days out. Driven off alone, putting considerable distance between himself and anyone who might know his face or name. It was bleak country out here. Very bleak. Isolated clapboard dwellings, leafless trees on rocky horizons, a sun that seemed unwilling to clear cloud. It reminded him of the old country. Old country, old ways, the old lack of ambition and expectation.
He got out of the car and walked among the rubble of former buildings. Came to an irregular indentation in the black earth. Nudged it with the polished toe of his rich man's shoe. A patch of soft earth where all about looked very hard indeed. He pulled a broken length of plank from nearby debris and used it to scoop some of the earth out. Some, then more. Then he stood back, gazed at the space he'd started to make, and around him at the hopeless desolation that had once been a town, and nodded slowly.
He got back in the car. Next time he came here he would ditch the car many miles away. Conceal it. Set it on fire perhaps. He would bring a spade to make the hole wider; longer too, though not the statutory incarceration length. A hole to curl up in, not stretch out in. Maybe he would take some pills. Maybe he would just sit in the hole and wait. But once down there (with the spade, so his action would not be suspected by any who chanced this way) he would haul down as much loose earth as he could reach and stand, trusting to nature and duration to fill the rest. In the succeeding decades the winds that surely howled across the featureless plain of this most rural of backwaters would carry a deal of topsoil and litter, so that in a wink of Time's eye the only hint that there was anything down there would be the secular cross he would plant on the surface. A cross without a name, without dates, with nothing but a four-word epitaph that no-one but he would fully understand.
Cyrus Underbund sat in his office in Washington, DC. 'Oh yeah, and that is?' he said, thinking of any number of things he'd rather be doing than talking to his son in Cambridge, England. 'Got yourself a job at last?'
'I had a job,' Octavian replied. 'Bookshop in Sidney Street. They gave me the push two weeks ago. Not enough footfall to warrant five staff, they said.'
'That wasn't a job,' Cyrus said. 'It was monkey-on-a-stick work. You spend all that time at university studying for that degree thing and end up behind a counter in a bookstore wrapping novels about people from university who get jobs in bookstores wrapping novels for people from university.'
'There's not much demand for philosophy graduates these days. Have to take what I can get.'
Cyrus grunted. 'How old are you now, boy - twenty-two?'
'Twenty-two-plus-one, you got a degree in something nobody needs and you've lost a menial job in a bookstore. By the time I got to your age I'd had experiences that made other guys weep, and made a pile of dough too.'
Octavian sighed. 'Yes. I heard.' Many times, he thought, so many times. 'But on the subject of employment, you might be interested to hear that I have a plan.'
'Oh yes? Doing what?'
'I want to open a restaurant. In London. An American restaurant specialising in good lesser-known dishes from every state of the Union, not a burger or French fry in the house. What do you think?'
'I think you're a prick.'
'I know you do. But even a prick needs money to open a restaurant.'
'So earn it. Whore around, like I had to.'
'According to Forbes you're one of the hundred richest people in America. What I need wouldn't dent your petty cash.'
'Hundred and eighth as of last week. That makes me practically destitute in this town.'
'I just need enough for a thirty-seater. I'd pay you back every last cent when it was up and running.'
'Damn right you would, but how would it look if it got out that a son of Cyrus Underbund runs a crummy little limey food bar? I'd be a laughing stock.'
'Who'd know?' Octavian said. 'We hardly advertise our relationship, and the last photograph of us together was taken when I was six.'
'Things get around. And I'd know. Now was there anything else? I got people to bawl out here.'
'Yes, there's something else. I'm getting married.'
'I'm getting married.'
'Married? What the hell you wanna do a damfool thing like that for? If you need to get laid I can fix you up right here in DC. We have this red-hot beaver delivery service, any hour, day or night, best hookers in six states, all shapes, sizes, colours, every one of 'em gagged with non-disclosure agreements. You don't wanna get married, boy.'
'I was young, I didn't know any better.'
'I'm young,' Octavian said. 'I don't know any better.'
'Hey. Wait a minute. She's not English, is she?'
'No, she's not English, she's - '
'Now you just pay attention to your old man here. Harken to the voice of experience. Get out while you can. Those English broads, they're all show, no performance. They only get under the blankets with you so they can read you fucking poetry. I never heard of William Wordsworth till I met your mom, then suddenly I'm spending my nights trying to prise his legs apart.'
'Ma's Irish,' Octavian said, 'and Ulrike's Danish.'
'Oolreeka? Who's that?'
'Your future daughter-in-law.'
'She's Danish? Like the pastry?'
'Yes. From the city of Aalborg.'
'Never heard of it. When did you go to Denmark?'
'I haven't been to Denmark. I met her here in Cambridge. She works in a little bistro in Rose Crescent. We'll make a good team. We're both interested in food.'
'I'm interested in food,' Cyrus said, 'but I don't feel some Zen compulsion to put on a pinny and serve it to any lardy stranger who shuffles through the door. Hell, kid, I leave you to get on with your life any way you want, and what happens? The moment you grow some body hair you're in the kitchen rattling them pots and pans and shacked up with some lousy Danish waitress.'
'We're not shacked up together.'
'You're not? Tave, what's wrong with you? If you're gonna do something really stupid take it all the way, that's what I always say.'
'She's very beautiful,' Octavian said.
There was a pause. He'd uttered a magic word.
He set aside the Schmidt-Rottluff and picked up a framed photo of Ulrike. 'You should see her eyes,' he said, gazing at it. 'Big, wide, gorgeous green eyes. Great figure too, good as any model. Better.'
'Blonde?' Cyrus enquired.
'Brunette. Very long, halfway down her back.'
'She has a hairy back?'
'Oh, Christ,' Octavian muttered.
'I thought all those Scandinavian gals were blonde.'
'Well, obviously not all.' He put the picture down.
'What about her ass?'
'Her ass. How's it look? In the flesh. How's it feel?'
'I really can't say.'
'Aw, come on, son, you can tell me.'
'No, I mean I really can't say.'
'You haven't seen it? You haven't even stroked it? Are you sure my blood runs through your veins? Maybe we should get a DNA check.'
'Can we get back to our wedding plans?' Octavian asked.
'Ulrike's and mine. It'll be a very small affair. We're thinking of sometime in August and we'd like you to be there if you can find the time in your busy schedule.'
'What name you getting married in?'
'My own, what else?'
'Bad move. Once the crazies of the world hear that Cyrus Underbund's kid's over there, you're a pool of blood and piss on the steps. I have enemies, Tave.'
'I'm sure you do. But I don't.'
'You don't need to. Get married under your real name in that hick town and the woodwork'll be pulling apart at the seams to let 'em at you, get back at me for something they think I did to them.'
'I managed to get through university intact.'
'That's because no-one takes any notice of students unless they burn shit down. But you're out of the cloisters now. Nasty things happen in the big wide world. You want to watch the news sometime.'
'You might find it hard to believe, Dad, but no-one over here gives a crap who you are. Most people haven't even heard of you. I might have preferred a hundred other names to the one you stuck me with, but I've had it for so long I wouldn't feel right using another. I'm not getting married under a false name, OK?'
'You're making a mistake, boy.'
'Well then, it's my mistake.'
'You really ought to listen to your father, Mr Underbund.'
'Tave?' Cyrus said. 'You got somebody there with you?'
'No. Who's there? Who is that?'
The sudden third voice on the line said: 'Oh, I'm the bad fellow who put a bomb under the bed of Mr Cyrus Underbund's son.'
It was hard to tell if the accent was Mexican, Iranian, Romanian or stoned Texas.
'Bomb?' said Cyrus, jumping to his feet in Washington, DC.
'Bomb?' said Octavian, crossing his legs in Cambridge, England.
'I thought I would tell you,' the voice said politely, 'so you'll know it wasn't an unfortunate domestic accident and seek reparation from some incompetent privatised industry.'
'TAVE!' Cyrus screamed. 'GET THE FUCK OUTTA THERE!'
He got the fuck out. Through the window. It was a second floor window. He was only just off the ledge when the flat exploded. So did the shop below. The picture of Ulrike and the Schmidt-Rottluff lithograph were never seen again, but there were jokes all over Bridge Street.
SAMPLE ONLY. 96,400 words in all. 53 chapters.
Who would have thought that falling asleep on a bus would be a life-changer? For most people it wouldn't be, but for Octavian… oh boy, what a difference a snooze makes! Now he's not where he was meant to be, and about to meet the wrong people, have the wrong encounters. Pity he doesn't know that. Doesn't suspect for a minute that everything he was hoping for in life has just shot out of reach. Ah well. Next bus maybe.
Special guest appearances by George Clooney, Danny DeVito, Halle Berry, Norman Bates and Charles Manson (lookalikes)