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Was he followed by a stranger from the grave?


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To Sydney there are no mysteries in life — they have been rationalised out of existence. So it was ironic that he became involved in a mystery for which no one has yet been able to find a rational explanation

I have known the man I will call Sydney Middleton for many years and I have never known him to do anything than any rational reasonable man would not do.

Predictability is written all through him like lettering in a stick of rock and he would be pleased with the description. Sydney doesn't like surprises.

His sensible rational turn of mind has been a valuable business asset. He is one of London's most successful dealers in antique silver and his shop at the Piccadilly end of the West End's Bond Street is highly respected in the trade.

To Sydney there are no mysteries in life — they have been rationalised out of existence. So it was ironic that he became involved in a mystery for which no one has yet been able to find a rational explanation.

It was in July 1989 that Sydney Middleton first gave some hint that something he couldn't explain was troubling him. He invited me to lunch and after an expensive meal suddenly said: "There's someone following me about. Do you think I should go to the police?"

When I asked who the man was, Sydney replied: "I don't know. I've never seen him properly. I am just certain that he is out to harm me."

He then told me the following strange tale. In the last week of May he had attended a sale of antique silver in the city of Norwich and bought a pair of Georgian silver snuffboxes dated around 1790.

After the sale he claimed the articles, made his way back to his car, and felt aware that he was being followed ... by a tall bald stooping man who appeared to have something covering his left eye.

In the weeks that followed, Sydney became convinced that he was constantly being followed by the mysterious stranger. He caught glimpses of him in the shadows of street corners, in crowds and in the mews courtyard in which he lived.

I confess that on the evidence he had offered I thought Sydney was making a fuss about very little. There were countless people in London answering to his description. Maybe he had just not noticed them before?

"You need a holiday," I told him and to my surprise he said I was probably right. We left the restaurant soon afterwards and he promised to keep in touch.

A fortnight later he phoned me to say the mystery was solved. "I thought I'd let you know about the fellow who was following me about. He came into the shop today to ask about the snuffboxes I bought in Norwich.

"Apparently he wants to buy them." You could hear the relief in his voice — the situation had become reassuringly normal.

When I asked if he had actually come face-to-face with the man, Sydney said he hadn't. The man had visited during the lunch-hour but Sydney's assistant had described him precisely: tall, thin and stooping with a velvet patch over one eye.

The man had left an address. He was anxious to discuss the boxes and Sydney managed to find a telephone number for the address which turned out to be a large country house in East Anglia, owned by a family of wealthy farmers and racehorse owners.

Sydney explained his business, only to be told that no one in the house had been to London making inquiries about snuffboxes but in fact the estate had sold a pair some months earlier which had belonged to the house's previous owner.

Someone prompted Sydney to ask the woman who had taken the call if she could describe the boxes and she replied that so far as she could remember, they were six-sided, each had four tiny feet and a crest on the lid depicting a dolphin and a dove.

Sydney looked at the two boxes on the desk in front of him with disbelief. Every detail tallied with the description he had been given.

He asked if he could contact the man who had visited his shop, in case he was interested in buying the boxes back and was told that was hardly possible.

"My father died last May," the woman told him. When asked to describe her father she said he was tall and stooping, very bald and with only one eye. He wore either dark glasses or, latterly a velvet patch...

It was typical of Sydney Middleton that he didn't tell me about this development until weeks later.

When I asked if he had seen the mysterious man again he said he hadn't. "I don't want to be reminded of that nonsense," he said. "It was all some sort of misunderstanding."

I still see Sydney from time to time but we never mention the case of the Georgian snuffboxes although I heard from another source that the East Anglian family were surprised and delighted to get their snuffboxes back for nothing.

To Sydney it was a small price to pay for being allowed to return to his logical straightforward world. To him, the matter is apparently closed.

Yet the past is with us as much as the present and not even Sydney could buy it off. The case of the Georgian snuffboxes will probably remain with him as an unwelcome reminder that beyond every shaft of sunlight is a shadow ... and that life and death are rarely what they seem. 

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