1. How She Fell in Love with Him
They’d dug him out of the glacier in 1946, pulled him out of the crevasse where he’d crawled after his Hollywood career had given up the ghost. The war over and some semblance of normal life starting to return to the valley, the villagers needed all the help they could get. Half the local men had either disappeared on the Eastern Front or come home too broken to work. A giant, an undead thing that didn’t need to eat or sleep, could make itself useful working the land, herding sheep, fetching and carrying.
This wasn’t the time for indulging in superstitions.
She’d fallen in love with him the first time she saw him, as the procession carried him down from the glacier front, strapped to a wooden litter made out of an old sledge. The remnants of a late spring snow flurry were still in the air and dry snowflakes were landing on his dead brow and on his dead, open eyes. His dead eyes that had turned to look at her when she ran up to wipe the snow away.
She was twenty-four years old and long a spinster by then. Did she recognise something of herself in him, see a reflection of her own giant appetites and clumsy desires? When the bearers slipped on the scree slope and accidentally sent his giant dead body skidding down the mountainside, his dead eyes wide in surprise as he accelerated past her, did she already see their slapstick future mapped out?
Every day for the next two weeks she went to the shed where they were keeping him chained while he thawed out. Peered at him through the knots and the gaps in the walls, talked to him and asked him what he was. After a week he remembered the voice the films had taken away from him, and told her the story of his life, asked her for hers. By the time the fortnight was up she had decided that they would be married.
As they stood in front of the altar and swore their vows, water was still dripping from the ends of his sleeves and his dead fingertips.
2. The Early Days
In the early days of their marriage they climb mountains together and make love in high Alpine glades, become the talk of the valley, are inseparable. They make love in waterfalls and woodland clearings, in hay barns, on the summits of mountains during huge electrical storms. Their lovemaking is spectacular. Neither of them can quite believe they have found the other.
They build a two-room hut on the edge of the village on land donated by her father, that old bastard, with room enough out back for her flock of sheep. They fill the hut with an inherited chest of drawers, a kitchen table, a giant dark wood armoire that looms over them while they eat, a bed that belonged to her grandparents. The monster finds the armoire oppressive, is constantly aware of it looming in the corner. It seems to follow him around the house. It stares at him through the window when he goes outside for a smoke in the evenings.
‘Can we get rid of the armoire?’ he asks her.
‘It was my great uncle’s,’ she tells him, again. ‘It’s a family heirloom. We can’t get rid of it.’
The monster sulks.
‘Come on,’ she says, ‘let’s go back to bed.’
They make love in the beautiful big bed, the monster keeping one eye on the armoire the whole time.
He decides he can live with it.
Everyone recognises him, obviously. Even this high up in the mountains, everyone knows who he is. In the local bar the men from the village challenge him to drinking competitions and tests of strength. They’re the same drinking competitions and tests of strength that they used to challenge her to. She’s either beaten up or drunk under the table every man in the village at least once.
They make sexual insinuations about her to the monster, most of which are true. As a younger woman, she had her share of adventures – many of which involved the men from the village. The monster shrugs. He’s been dead for over a hundred years, is constructed from the dismembered body parts of a number of different corpses.
He has a sense of perspective.
The men from the village queue up to punch him in the face, hit him round the head with chairs and planks of wood. He stands there, taking it, until eventually they run out of furniture. He gets drunk and, for a bet, carries a hay cart on his back to the summit of one of the local peaks. He falls asleep on the summit; dreams he is back in Hollywood having a disastrous affair with Elsa Lanchester. In the dream they kidnap a child and cross the border into Mexico, hide out in an abandoned mining town.
He wakes at dawn to find crows pecking at his face, crawls back home and throws himself on the mercy of his wife.
3. What They Argue About
Like all young couples and not-so-young couples, they argue. Usually when they’ve been drinking.
They argue about poetry. They argue about art. They argue about the looming armoire. One day he gets drunk and manages to lose her entire flock of sixty-three rare Italian blue sheep. The sheep are last seen heading over the border to Italy, the monster stumbling after them, cartwheeling end over end down the mountainside. They spend years arguing about that.
They stay up all night arguing until the watery dawn washes the sky and the dew blankets the meadow behind their two-room hut. Things are thrown and smashed. The monster, the violence long gone out of him, leached from his bones during his years in the glacier, sits on his giant hands while his wife rages magnificently.
In the meadow behind their two-room hut they lie down in the wet grass and watch the sky, listen to the crows and the woodpeckers in the forest.
‘We could have a worse life,’ she says.
‘Much, much worse,’ he says.
‘There’s no war and we’re in love.’
‘You’re more than I ever expected.’
‘It’s the same for me.’
‘I love you, Monster.’
And so on.
Of course the monster feels guilt. He has a lot to feel guilty about. The wild excesses of his Hollywood years. The disastrous affair with Elsa Lanchester. All those people he murdered back in the old country.
Back-breaking labour is all he feels he deserves. He’s never happier than when ripping out tree stumps, carrying boulders, damming streams, scaring off bears and wolves. He needs to feel needed, of use.
In 1948 he helps rescue a child who has wandered off the path during the seasonal Alpwirtschaft and got lost out on the glacier. The villagers have been searching the giant boulder field for three days, have almost given up on the boy by the time they ask for the monster’s help.
They gather outside the hut nervously in the warm spring evening. The shapes of bats swoop and dive against what light is still held in the sky. Some of the villagers have brought flaming torches – mostly out of habit, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.
The monster is doing the washing up when they arrive. He comes outside with the dish towel still in his hand and listens as they explain what has happened. When they have finished he nods once and then takes off at a loping run, just like that.
The glacier holds no terror for him. In its endless blue depths he remembers only peace and an eternity of forgetting. He knows the sound of breaking ice almost as well as his own breathing.
He finds the boy within a couple of hours, disoriented and cold but uninjured. The boy looks up at him and thinks he’s seeing an angel.
‘Am I dead?’ the boy asks.
‘No,’ the monster tells him.
‘Are you dead?’
The monster picks him up and puts him over his shoulder, carries him out and down to the village where the boy is fed brandy and rubbed with fat to warm him up.
The next day the villagers leave a box of cigars on the monster’s doorstep.
5. Family Life
Gradually he is integrated into the community. He becomes known and loved for his indomitable spirit and clumsy comic antics, his inability to help deliver a piano without accidentally dropping it over the side of a mountain, or to cook breakfast without accidentally setting himself on fire. Enjoying their morning coffee outside the café in the centre of the village, the locals set their pocket watches every day by the sight of the panicked monster running down the street with at least one of his arms in flames.
They come to understand, the monster and his wife, eventually, that there will be no children. Instead she becomes, in sequence, a teacher’s assistant, then a carpenter’s assistant, then a doctor’s assistant, then is apprenticed to the local midwife. She enjoys her work, is a star pupil.
When the midwife is killed in a cycling accident she’s the only candidate to take over the practice.
‘And this is what you want to do?’ the monster asks, carefully.
‘This is absolutely what I want to do,’ she tells him.
‘Even with everything considered.’
‘Even with all that, yes.’
She has always been this determined. At fourteen she was already taller than all the other girls and most of the boys in the valley. She could out-climb, out-run, out-fight just about everyone she knew. She’d been terrorizing the local populace for a couple of years when the soldiers arrived to set up an outpost in the valley.
Everyone assumed that she knew better than to try it on with the soldiers. And for the first couple of months she kept her head down, despite the shouts and insults her freakish height attracted from them. Then they caught her stealing supplies and nobody saw or heard anything from her for over a month.
The story went round that she’d been sent to the camp at Mauthausen, or that she’d been shot, or that she’d escaped over the border into Italy. When she walked out of the wood one wet spring morning, still dressed in the same torn clothes she’d been wearing when she was arrested, nobody asked her where she’d been or what had happened.
For the rest of the war she stayed out of the soldiers’ way. And, as they started meeting with accidents – one found shot with his own gun, another gutted and hung from a tree – they tried to stay out of hers.
She hunted down the last one two days before the end of the war.
6. Middle Age
As their marriage moves into middle age he gives up drinking a number of times. They take over and run the small hotel at the head of the valley, adding twelve more rooms by developing a couple of unused cow barns. As the surrounding nations recover from the war there is a boom in tourism. Hill walkers and mountain climbers and winter sports enthusiasts arrive in bright green rented buses.
Late at night the monster lies awake, aware of the deep, slow breathing of all his guests, the terrible responsibility he has taken on. Aware of that fucking armoire still leaning over him, in the dark.
He has nightmares about fire, about earthquakes and landslides and avalanches. He dreams of comedy routines in which he has to climb up ladders and out of windows, in and out of doors and down the endless corridors of the hotel, trying to gather up his lost guests, pursued by Abbot and Costello.
‘Go back to sleep,’ she murmurs. ‘I love you.’
‘I am asleep.’
‘Your eyes are open. Your dead eyes.’
In 1954 she has an affair, never mind why, with a photographer who has come to the high Alpine valley to take large-format glass prints of the mountains and the people. He tells her he wants to document their changing way of life, spends the summer taking pictures of the village baker, the tour guides, the milkmaids, the shepherds, the unsuspecting monster himself.
They meet, usually, in the woodshed. Of all places. She is aware of the exotic novelty she represents to him, the sense of his intruding on another world. She is not unenchanted by the photographs he takes of her. It’s all over within a few weeks.
When the monster finds out he goes on a three-day bender and then tries to drown himself. It doesn’t work. He wakes up at the bottom of the river with fish nibbling at his eyes and a group of local children throwing stones at him from the bridge. The stones slow down when they hit the water, fall gently on to his face.
He decides he likes the peace and quiet down there, likes the way the dull green light reminds him of being inside the glacier, thinks he might stay there forever.
That’ll show her.
He lies on the riverbed for a week, staring up at the changing sky, until everyone is bored. His wife – furious, embarrassed, proud, confused – never comes to beg him to return home. He decides he will use this in arguments with her for the next twenty years.
And that decision made, he gets up and goes back to his life.
7. What Happens Next
Carefully they reconstruct their relationship, try to find each other again. He comes close to having an affair with one of the hotel’s two chambermaids, thinks better of it. He apologises to the chambermaid for leading her on, reassures her about her job security. She ends up taking over the management of the hotel a few years later when the monster and his wife decide to ease back on their responsibilities.
Together the two of them rediscover their love life, find it – if anything – even better than it was when they left it. They embarrass their neighbours and scare the cattle. They take up bird-watching and go on camping trips to the high peaks.
In 1957 there are a number of murders in the region. Women, men and children. All killed in similar ways. We don’t need to dwell on the details. The monster is briefly under suspicion, finds himself being arrested and interviewed by the authorities. He rests his handcuffed hands on the small wooden table as the chief of police sits opposite him, cigar in an ashtray, light pouring down from overhead.
The chief of police frowns, runs his fingers through his huge moustache. Clears his throat a number of times.
‘I’ve never had reason to think of you as …’
‘As anything other than an upstanding member of our community. And your wife. In particular.’
‘My wife in particular, yes.’
‘But this is a grisly business. With your reputation.’
‘My reputation,’ says the monster. ‘Of course.’
He remembers his own many deaths. The terror of each ending, the agony of being stitched back together and reanimated, the ozone smell of lightning inside his skull. He never asked for any of this.
‘And who does?’ is what his wife always says, and she has a point. She, most of all.
After five days in the cells they let him out, apologise for the inconvenience. The murderer turns out to have been a war veteran from a couple of valleys over. The monster doesn’t mind.
He hasn’t slept this well in years.
8. Career Revival
In the early 1960s he gets a job as a ski lift operator. He sits in the little hut all day smoking cigarettes and watching brightly dressed children and adults coming down the mountain, queueing to go back up again. They stagger about like drunk beetles, their skis and poles like extra arms and legs that they don’t know what to do with.
In the summer, hikers and mountain climbers struggle on to the chairlifts carrying giant backpacks. The monster never tries the lift himself. He is afraid of heights.
He is rarely recognised, only signs the occasional autograph.
Nevertheless, in 1963 he is approached by a Spanish film producer who persuades him to travel to Malaga to perform in a couple of cheapie horror films. The journey takes three days, on four different trains. As they travel across the endless desert the monster dreams of the North Pole.
The film director is a drunk with a goatee beard and an eye patch. He screams at the monster, at the other actors, at a young actress who doesn’t want to take her clothes off. The filming is otherwise untaxing, and the monster makes enough money to put a new roof on the house. In the evenings he lies on the tiny bed in his hotel room watching the ceiling fan go round. The room is so small his feet stick out of the window.
The mosquitos never bother him.
One night he stays up until dawn smoking cigarettes with some of the other actors. He tells them – when asked – tales of Hollywood in the nineteen thirties, about Bela Lugosi and Errol Flynn and Dolores Del Rio and Rita Hayworth and Elsa Lanchester. Most of all about Elsa Lanchester.
None of the actors have heard of any of these people.
They tell him about growing up under the dictatorship, then take all their clothes off and get him stoned for the first time in his life on some fantastic local weed. He subsequently develops a marijuana habit which will mostly – mostly – keep him off the booze for the rest of his life.
As the sun comes up the young actress rests her head on his giant shoulder. Nothing else happens between them, but fifty years later he still remembers the smell of her hair.
9. What the Monster Knows and What He Can’t Accept
In his darkest hours the monster knows that he is responsible for the deaths, though he still curses his own father’s name. He knows that this is his gift, his punishment for his unnatural existence. He accepts it.
What he can’t accept is that his torture should have been visited on all those he loves.
His wife, of course, had always raged against her destiny, against each and every loss, as she rages against everything else: magnificently, spectacularly, terrifyingly.
Her giant hands have, by now, delivered over a hundred mothers’ children safely into the world, lost only two of them. She grieves for those lost children just as much as she does for her own.
In 1974 a passenger jet carrying two hundred and fifty-three people clips the side of one of the mountains in bad weather and comes down on the slopes above the glacier. It takes the rescue party a day to reach the summit, another three days to give up the search for survivors.
For three days the monster works through the blizzard, lifting frozen bodies from the snow. Bodies and wreckage are scattered across the mountaintop. Luggage. Seats. Thousands of duty-free cigarettes. The stink of jet fuel and perfume on everything.
At night the rest of the rescue team retreat into brightly coloured tents. The monster sits outside, watching the snow settling on his arms and legs, chain-smoking all the cigarettes, unable to believe his luck.
The dead don’t bother him any more than the cold does. Until the third day, when they find a mother and baby, dead, frozen, the mother still strapped into her seat, the baby at her breast, its head still cradled in the mother’s hand.
That night, back down in the village, the Monster takes his first drink in twenty years – some ridiculous cocktail with an umbrella and a slice of pineapple in it that they’re trialling in the local bar, there are free Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses for them all to wear too – and he doesn’t stop for three months.
For her fifty-fourth birthday the monster and his wife take a trip to the city. They visit art galleries and museums, the monster pulling his hat low over his face to avoid attracting attention. They ride the trams and visit the botanical gardens and the famous glass palace. On the edge of the town huge concrete towers are being constructed to make sure that everyone will have a place to live one day.
They come across an old cinema playing one of his films, and she persuades him to go inside and watch it with her. It’s The Bride of Frankenstein, with Elsa Lanchester of course, playing the monster’s mate. In the dark they stare up at his giant, ruined countenance of more than forty years ago, and he thinks that he didn’t do such a bad job, after all. And Elsa, with her electric shock of hair, her magnificent face, still looks fantastic.
Afterwards they sit in bed in the attic room in the small hotel, smoking cigarettes.
‘I understand why she rejected you,’ the monster’s wife says, ‘but I still think it was a mistake.’
‘The bride. In the film.’
‘She never had children either,’ she says.
‘No,’ he says. ‘No, I don’t think she ever did.’
For the next two days it rains without stopping. They spend hours sitting and drinking beers in gloomy wood-panelled cafés and are, all things considered, impossibly content.
11. Her Eventual, Inevitable Death
Their last ten years turn out to be their best, clear of the stubborn stupidity of youth, the need to be anything other than who they are.
She gets a job lecturing at the teaching hospital, gets up before dawn to ride the bus down to the town three times a week, in all weathers. Every morning he watches her getting dressed in the dull light, his dead eyes following her as she moves around the room, aware that she is still trying, thoughtfully, not to wake him. Inevitably he will end up getting out of bed to make her a flask of coffee, trip over the cat and fall down the stairs. And she will kiss his broken brow before she leaves.
He writes his memoirs, sticks them in a drawer.
In the capital, like everywhere else in Europe, there is a bombing campaign by students or revolutionaries or terrorists. The bombers carry out a series of bank robberies wearing masks of the monster’s face. For a couple of weeks, the telephone in the village bar rings off the hook. He is invited to be interviewed on the national news but politely declines.
At the weekends the monster and his wife plant trees in the meadow behind their house, ten of them in all. She writes a guide to midwifery, probably saves thousands of lives as a result.
The day of her death he is, ludicrously, doing a day’s work as an extra on a James Bond film that is shooting up on the glacier. He has just had his photo taken with Roger Moore when he receives word that her bus has gone off the road.
12. Years Later He Still Smokes Marijuana
Years later he still smokes marijuana. In the evenings he rolls a joint and reads the latest batch of letters sent to him by children and academics from around the world. To his endless surprise, he has lived long enough to be overtaken by his own legend. He is comfortable in its shadow.
He is comfortable, too, in the shadow of the old looming armoire, has always known they would end up together. He holds long, rambling, one-sided conversations with the armoire, talks to it as if they were married.
He misses his wife, of course. He probably gets more letters for her than for himself. He answers all those too, on her behalf, and thanks people for their interest. Her book is into its twentieth reprinting, is still the subject of conferences. He is hugely proud of her, still.
It’s fifteen years since she was buried, ten years since the moonless night when he robbed her grave and carried the corpse up into the pine woods, his huge shape briefly silhouetted against the starry sky, to the overgrown clearing that he’s kept a secret for half a century.
He still visits on each of the birthdays, gets up in the hours before dawn to make the long climb through the forest in the giant darkness, to leave offerings of fruit or carved wooden toys against the stones he used to mark the graves. He knows the names of each of their children, even those lost just weeks into pregnancy, knows the lives they would have lived had they survived.
He is still called on, now and then, to help lift and fetch and carry things down in the village, to assist in house moves and minor construction jobs, to strap grand pianos to his back, to take part in old-fashioned mountain rescues. Once a month he squeezes himself into the retired chief of police’s ancient Renault and they make the trip down to the nearest town to smoke good cigars.
He is not, after everything, unhappy.
13. Ten Lives
Hector, born dead after a three-day labour, who would have grown up to be a doctor and who would have returned from medical school in Linz to marry his childhood sweetheart and spend a long and useful life fixing broken bones and delivering children in the valley.
Handsome Gotz, who came more than three months early, and who would have spent his youth breaking the hearts of half the girls in the district, before settling down suddenly with the cleverest girl in the village and opening a butcher’s shop.
Sebastian the magnificent, who would have built a lumber mill at the head of the valley and become the richest and most generous man in the state, and who would eventually die in a duel after being caught with another man’s wife.
Daniel, delivered with a useless arm and the cord tight around his neck, who would have gone on to have a career in law in the capital, and who would marry three times in spite of his disability, and be elected to parliament.
Beautiful August, whose broken body fit into his father’s cupped hands, and who would have gone to the university in Ingoldstat and become a poet. Poor August, who would have joined the army after a disastrous love affair and got himself killed three days before the end of the war.
Heinrich, born cold and blue, who would run away to make his fortune overseas, and return twenty years later with three children and a wife in tow, having found a drinking habit and squandered everything else.
Lucy, Heinrich’s dead twin, who would also run away, in her case to become an explorer, and return twenty years later with scars on her face and tales of the mysterious Orient, and who would spend the rest of her life, not unhappily, as an unmarried school mistress.
Ella the brave, who slipped away a week before she was due, who would have loved nothing better than fighting with her brothers and beating them at chess, and who would have married Karl the shepherd before raising fifteen sturdy children and living to be a hundred years old.
Snaggle-toothed Katrin, smart and fierce, gone not four months after she was conceived, who would nevertheless murder at least two husbands and spend half her life in an insane asylum before finding salvation and sisterhood at a convent high in the mountains.
And Louise the idiot, who would have passed her short life in blissful happiness, mostly unaware of the world, dying at the age of twenty-five due to the swelling of the brain that had killed her in the womb. Louise, who her father would have loved more than any of the others, who he would have strapped to his back every spring and carried up to watch the breaking of the glacier fronts, the girl screaming for joy and putting her hands over her fathers’ eyes as the giant pillars of ice sheared off and collapsed into the tumbling rivers below.