I found it awkward to watch him at times. Mr Walker slouched unobtrusively in a dim corner of Mrs Lambert’s tiny lounge area of her Malmesbury home in the Cotswolds, seeking the warmth of a weak coal fire after Mrs Lambert’s meal of a sausage, mash and gravy. He was a shell of a human; just a frail vessel containing a weak candle of life that flickered indiscriminately and was about to extinguish. Even in lucid moments he rarely spoke to me; at other times Mr Walker retreated into being just part of the pattern on the old lounge.
I assume that prior to 1914, Mrs Lambert’s late husband had probably reclined on the same lounge in Mr Walker’s current position. He’d possibly reflected on their childless marriage and the futile war in Europe. Mrs Lambert had lamented to me, in the first few days of my lodgings, that her late husband had answered the call to the western front ready to give the Kaiser “what for”, but in a sodden field in Belgium had been chemically reduced from an exuberant, patriotic Brit to just another sad statistic of a mustard gas explosion. The 3rd battle of Ypres demonstrated to the world that mustard gas had irretrievably changed the conventions of trench warfare, and it irrevocably altered the aspirations Mrs Lambert held for her future.
When I noticed Mrs Lambert’s advertisement for a lodger hanging in the window of the Malmesbury butchery in late, 1934, I was granted an interview, and subsequently accepted into her home. Her rules were simple and clear - no visitors, no intoxicating spirits and no obscene language in the house. I’m not sure how long he’d been there prior to my arrival, but Mr Walker blended seamlessly and unobtrusively into the home and we both had our own sparsely furnished rooms.
Throughout my short time as a lodger, whilst I worked for a printer not far from the Market Cross in Malmesbury, Mr Walker became more of an enigma to me. I had no idea of his age although Mrs Lambert thought he was in his late eighties. She had also been able to glean snippets of information about his younger life in Africa. He would sit at times, visually transfixed on a roll of fly paper, or a vase. It was apparent that he’d entered a reasonably advanced state of senility, such was his increasing inability to communicate. In rare moments he would stare through me in that small loungeroom and speak in a thin, high pitched voice about crime and crime fighting. He would be looking in my direction but speaking to no one in particular. Mr Walker may as well have been talking to a moth around the lantern. Perhaps he was.
It was a piercingly cold night in late January, 1935. The last vestiges of any daytime warmth had evaporated into the starkness of a wintery night. A frost had settled early onto the riverside fields below our home, and even Mrs Lambert had joined Mr Walker and I as we sought the minuscule amount of warmth generating from the dying embers of the coal fire. I watched Mr Walker in his reverie. He had fixated on the tiny curlicues of flame escaping the glowing embers. Absent-mindedly he prodded the interior of his ear canal with a pencil before removing it and inspecting the small globule of orange wax on the point.
“Bastards. Criminal bastards,” he muttered, mostly to himself. Mrs Lambert and I exchanged quizzical glances, then Mr Walker rose unsteadily and moved towards his room with his familiar shuffled gait, a legacy of a slight stroke.
From the cold hallway we heard an anguished cry.
“Devil,” he called in an agitated but feeble voice.
They were the last words I ever heard from Mr Walker. I was awakened by an urgent rapping on my bedroom door before daybreak. Mrs Lambert was distraught. She’d discovered Mr Walker’s lifeless body on the bathroom floor when she’d gone for her early morning ablutions. She begged me to immediately summon Doctor Wainwright then go to the constable’s home to report the death.
Several days later, and in the absence of any next-of-kin, Mrs Lambert asked if I would pack up Mr Walker’s effects into the old sea trunk he kept in his room. I reluctantly complied. It was sad to view a human life through the prism of a few old belongings. Could the sum total of Mr Walker’s decrepit and unknown life be measured by a few meagre possessions? A few old books, socks and underwear, several folded handkerchiefs. Each was quickly despatched into the trunk without a second thought on my part. My interest in his worldly goods was only piqued when I opened the bottom drawer. It appeared to be some kind of threadbare costume. Mostly in purples and black, but well worn, faded and torn in several places. A type of dark mask and a metal ring engraved with a skull lay underneath. Puzzled, I placed the contents of the drawer into the chest. As far as Mrs Lambert and I knew, the deceased lodger had never mentioned being a circus performer.
The final item in the drawer was a folded, handwritten letter. Curiosity overwhelmed me and I opened it and read:
“23rd August, 1934.
Dear Mr Kit Walker,
You don’t know me, but even from the other side of the Atlantic I have been made aware of your lifetime of crime-busting exploits in Africa. I am a published cartoonist, and I’d like to notify you that I hope to draw comic strips based on your deeds. I plan to launch it on the 17th February next year (1935) in American newspapers, then also create comic magazines. I hope it will be a successful business venture, supported by the public. Hopefully, the comic strip can initially be published for a 6 week run. It is my intention to call it ‘The Phantom.’
It would be my pleasure to meet you in the future if the comic strip gains any public interest.
I was rightly perplexed, but quickly folded the letter and discarded it into the old lodger’s sea chest. No, I thought, I’m a printer. Sadly for Mr Falk, and Mr Walker’s legacy, a comic strip like that will never take off.