159. The Black Feather

Part 3 of the series, 'The Circle'. (Starts here.)

AFTER EVERYTHING WENT WRONG in Genoa, the Circle went to ground. Each of us went off in our separate directions. The Circle had failed, as indeed it was bound to do. For years, we had shared a common obsession: Caravaggio. It had grown slowly, over many years at boarding school, then by the time we were at university together it had become all-consuming. At first it was Floyd and Holly's pet obsession, and slowly it overtook us all: the cult of Caravaggio. Before his death, Caravaggio had attempted to retrieve the painting Ecce Homo from its owner, the archbishop of Naples. The master intended to destroy the painting, which depicted, as Jesus, a man he had loved above all others, a lover who had betrayed him for another. Caravaggio's deathbed wishes were ignored. We had determined to fulfill his dying wish. We believed it was his due. This was the genesis of the Genoa plot. It was not, as was suggested in the newspapers at the time, a secret left-wing terrorist plot. We were not left-wing. We considered ourselves to be left-wing, but in fact we were spoiled, incompetent rich kids busying ourselves with frittering our lives away on absurdities. At any rate, the plot went wrong, horribly wrong. Sebastian was killed, Holly was injured and caught, and the rest of us escaped. We had not only failed to destroy Ecce Homo, we didn't even leave a scratch on it. The only thing that survived intact was our agreement: in case of failure, we would disband, discontinue all contact with one another, and that this rupture should continue indefinitely until we received a sign: a black feather. And so, according to the dictates of the agreement, we fled Genoa, each of us setting off in his or her own direction. This, of course, was easier said than done. The Circle was my whole world, and I wasn't alone. Each of us needed to reinvent ourselves, sometimes in drastic fashion: we disappeared from our previous lives, took on new identities, cut relations with our families, moved to new countries. Of course, back in the 1970s such a thing was still possible - difficult, but possible. Nowadays, I wouldn't fancy our chances. Max pursued a career in academia, as a professor of mathematics. Floyd embarked on a career as a music producer in Scotland. Raoul vanished so thoroughly even we didn’t know where he ended up – probably, I always thought, in South Africa. I had a vision of him as a mercenary for the apartheid government, chasing the ANC government-in-exile around Namibia. Kim ended up in LA, married to a television director. Sebastian, of course, was dead. He'd died during the debacle in Genoa. I missed him terribly - he was the best among us, the most able, the most innocent. I miss him still. Holly, having been injured as we escaped in Genoa, went to an Italian prison. She confessed to nothing, and her prison sentence was harsh. I still feel crippling pangs of guilt when I think of the price Sebastian paid for our bungling, and even more so in Holly's case. I always suspected her of being brittle, but she surprised me. She was tough, unbreakable, always polite, even when she was being cruel, and yet on occasion the most devastatingly charming person I have ever met. As for me, I found my way first to Israel, then Thailand, and I finally ended up managing a small hotel on the Costa Brava, where I took care of business for some Russian associates I’d met along the way. I made some money, bought things, unexpected things like places to live, machines that purringly took me from A to B, illegal devices that went bang and magically solved problems. I had, by this time, married - a pretty local girl, who knew some things, and didn't know many more, and didn't ask too many questions. We had two children. In short, I knew how to keep a secret. It was necessary. Then, one morning, I checked my mail and found a letter postmarked Amsterdam. I opened it and it contained a black feather. A crow's feather. The sign we'd agreed to all those years ago, a sign that it was time for the Circle to be, once again, unbroken.