The Disarmed Man
James Eccarus gazed out across the
ice-strewn river towards Southwark bridge. As he pulled his
scarf from his throat, the cold winter sun stung the back of his
neck. He rewrapped the scarf, more tightly this time. He
lent forward, resting his elbows on the walkway’s handrail. He
clutched the book in his hands to his chest, scared that it might
fall into the water. He hated heights. He was always
afraid that he would drop something: his phone, his glasses,
himself. It was irrational. He knew that his phone was in
his pocket, his glasses hooked round his ears, his feet on the
bridgefloor. Chattering crowds brushed past him. He
stepped back from the handrail. The cold had seeped through his
jacket to his skin. He sighed, condensation curling from his
Suddenly a rumble echoed upwards from underneath the
bridge. A barge slowly revealed itself and moved towards one of
the large icepieces that were rocking in the middle of the river.
Figures appeared from the squat cabin on the boat. They quickly
tethered the ice to the barge and began to chip away at the block.
James smiled. He pretended that they were guerilla sculptors.
But the fantasy could not last long. Within minutes, the ice
had been obliterated and returned to the water, no longer
As the barge moved on, carving its way eastwards,
James’s eyes were drawn up to the traffic moving across the bridge.
Above the boat’s humming engine and churning propeller, James could
barely hear the cars. He looked down at the book in his hands.
This was the subject of his PhD dissertation: The Disarmed Man
by Lucas Deed, set in London, November 2008. He never failed to
be amused by the details of the city at that time. The warm
winters, for example. Nowadays there wasn’t a winter without
the Thames freezing over. So the ice barges. And then
there was the noise. As John Steer, the protagonist of the
book, walks through London he cannot escape the incessant whirring of
traffic, the brash burr of motors. But now James could hear
only the faint purr of tyres rolling across Southwark bridge, pulled
onwards by magnetic tracks that had taken a decade to lay out across
James turned to face the block of bricks to
his right. It was here, in this gallery, that the final scene
of The Disarmed Man took place. In the book, John
wanders through London, from King’s Cross to the cafe in this
building on Wednesday 5th November 2008, attempting to come to terms
with the loss of his wife, finally finding his peace in a cup of
And now here was James, on the same date, making the
same journey, fifty years later. He had been studying the book
for two years now and his dissertation lacked all inspiration.
It felt completely unconnected to the novel. He had hoped to
shed some light on the author, Lucas Deed, a man who had been
shrouded in mystery since the book’s appearance. Having written
the novel in the closing weeks of 2008, Deed had died at some point
before its publication in 2012. It had been a brief bestseller,
but the lack of an author for promotion had consigned it to
obscurity. Worse, for reasons that were still mysterious, The
Disarmed Man had been viciously attacked by Professor Julian
Spiner, the most eminent critic of the forties. He decried the
book as unrealistic, both in its characters and, more importantly,
its setting. Deed’s grimy, noisy, dangerous city was nothing
more, Spiner claimed, than fiction. Stripped of its historical
interest, the book fell out of publication. And yet in a
strange way, James understood the city of John Steer, not his own.
The first time he had read the book, it had felt like a
He set off towards the gallery and its cafe.
felt the box in his jacket pocket. He had collected it that
morning from the British Library. It contained all the
paperwork left to the library by Deed’s daughter. Unfortunately
there were no notebooks, no unpublished writings, only basic,
everyday ephemera: receipts, shopping lists, bills. James
remembered when he had met his supervisor to suggest the idea of
using these for research. ‘Three-sixty biography’, he had
called it. His supervisor had looked unimpressed, shrugged his
shoulders and agreed disinterestedly. Neurological criticism
was the current trend in literary research. Famous writers from
the twenties onwards had been leaving their brains to science.
These were sliced, scanned, scrutinised in the quest to discover the
secrets of literature. Using the formulae derived from this
research, the first autoproduced novel had appeared to critical
acclaim last year. It was predicted that writers would be
obsolete within the decade.
“Well? You’ve got to buy
James was standing in front of the cafe
till. He held out a five pound note. The tillgirl rolled
“Not paying by card?”
all I’ve got,” replied James.
The girl took the note and
held her hand out again.
“Well? Epaper? To
load the receipt onto?” snapped the tillgirl.
mine can’t do that.”
The girl sighed noisily and ducked
under the till. She had been gone quite some time – the line
behind James was getting longer and less patient – before she
reappeared with a dusty machine. It clicked into life and
rolled out a piece of shiny paper.
snarled the girl.
James took a seat at a small table wedged
against a wall, the only place left. As he opened his book, the
woman who had been behind him in the queue sat in the other free
chair at the table.
“Don’t mind if I sit here do
She looked at James’s book.
find it cumbersome to carry that around all the time?”
Disarmed Man’s first sentence struck James’s eyes: “In
London, no-one talks to each other.” He wished that was
still true. Now everybody talked. All the time.
studying it. I make notes in it as it read.” James
held up a stub of a pencil by way of explanation.
looked unconvinced. “I much prefer my epaper.”
She pulled a neat square from her pocket and unfolded it. As
she touched it, a screensaver lit the paperthin screen. The
picture showed the woman wearing a Christmas hat and sitting next to
a man. They were both grinning. James wondered if he was
her boyfriend, or husband, or brother. “It’s a fourth
iteration. I can access the internet, email, make calls, listen
to music. Write documents, edit videos. Everything I need
to do. You can even download books for it, if that’s what you
James pulled a similar square from his pocket.
It was slightly thicker than the woman’s and quite grubby.
“I’ve only got a first iteration. Got it cheap, secondhand
from my student union. It’s a little unreliable.” He
“You’re a student?” said the woman
with a curl of her lip.
James felt uncomfortable. “Yes.
I’m doing a PhD. On this book actually.” He held up
The Disarmed Man.
“Oh. I am sorry.”
The woman turned away.
James returned to his book. His
cheeks were burning, but he was glad to be freed from conversation.
It was ironic that the woman should think so little of his
occupation. In The Disarmed Man, John Steer is a teacher
who aspires, above all else, to study for a doctorate. In those
days it was a mark of distinction. Now it was far more
respectable to be a “contributive member of the economy”.
With all the gene and neuro therapy techniques that had been
developed in the last thirty years, businesses required nothing more
than your medical notes as a guarantee of ability. Only those
who were too poor to afford this ‘Intellimedicine’ but too bright to
qualify for state help had to work their way through the now
crumbling education system. A PhD enabled these people to
obtain a fairly respectable position. James only hoped that he
could produce his dissertation.
As he raised the steaming cup
to his lips, he glanced at the receipt lying on the table. It
looked familiar. Then it struck him. In his excitement he
gulped down his hot coffee, burning the roof of his throat. He
pulled the lid from the box of Deed’s documents. He scrabbled
through the papers, rocking the table. The woman opposite
tutted loudly. At last, he found what he was looking for.
A small rectangle of glossy paper covered with smudged letters.
He placed it next to the receipt for his coffee. He could just
make out a date through the blurred letters. 05/11/2008.
And two words: Gallery. Coffee. This was it. This
was the closest thing to proof ever found. The novel was
autobiographical. John Steer was Lucas Deed. And James
Eccarus was saved.