‘Did you know Foster.’ Sirius said knowing full well that I would not have had a clue, but giving me the benefit of the doubt. ‘That the number ‘7’ is an auspicious number? It is the fourth prime number. It is a double Mersenne prime because its exponent ‘3’ is also a prime and it is known as the lucky prime and the only safe prime. Each airplane in Boeing’s line of passenger jets is named with a 3-digit number beginning and ending in 7. There are the Seven Kings of Rome, Seven Continents, Seven Seas, Seven Days of the Week, Seven Hills of Istanbul etc, etc. O and let’s not forget 7-Eleven.’
When I was ‘7’ I acquired a tutor until I was twelve. This was presumably to supplement whatever knowledge I was already acquiring at The Schloss School but I suspect he was basically a nanny, albeit a very smart one. He was an Austrian by the name of Sirius Autenberg and from where I stood he was the first person who loved me and when he left I cried for ‘21’ hours exactly. He told me the above about the number seven by way of introduction on the first day of our acquaintance. Sirius accompanied me, when I turned twelve, to England when I graduated from the Schloss School and said I was to be a boarder at Cambridge until my mother came back from her many singing dates.
He hugged me goodbye and said he would see me soon and left me at the gate of my college with the porter and a small leather satchel containing some clothes and a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He said. ‘Foster soon you will look at the opposite sex in a new and interesting way, all you need to know about love you will find in the sonnets.’ I had not much of an idea about which he spoke but with everything Sirius said, I took a mental note. He tried to conceal his tears and I wondered later how long it took him to stop.
He drove away in his car which he called the ‘1963 Studebaker Lark’. He would say ‘Come Foster we will take the 1963 Studebaker Lark for a spin.’ We had a great many spins, the last being the one to Cambridge via the car ferry from Calais to Dover. This was the most exciting ‘spin’ of them all.
Sirius never told a lie except the two on that day. He said I would be boarding at Cambridge only until my mother returned from her singing engagements and that he would see me soon. I never set eyes on him again but I had word many years later that he had hung himself. I want to get that out of the way first because when I heard of his lonely death I was propelled into a state of melancholy from which I thought I would never recover. That, as you must be getting used to by now, is another story.
He was, along with Oscar, the most influential person of my life. He was brilliant of mind and sad at heart and when you read what I have to relate you will ask ‘who could blame him?’ Well, maybe I am being presumptuous but who is writing this anyway?
There was French nurse at my college who resembled a newly painted white plank with a frizzy red-topped bonce stuck to the top. She went by the name of Juliette and she bustled into my dorm room to sternly tell me that I would dry out completely if I didn’t stop crying and that she was shocked by how much I had already dried out and if I didn’t watch out, I would shortly be a husk. Horticulture not having entered into my deliberations with Sirius, I was not entirely sure what a husk might be but immediately decided that becoming one sounded like a fate worse than death and I stopped crying.
‘Tres bon’ She said smiling at me, put her cool hand on my forehead, smiled palely and left. Because all I had done since arriving at Cambridge is cry, she mistakenly thought that I might know French. She was a physically unattractive person with a very forthright manner but as kind as the day was long. The next day I met Professor Knight-Clules and the day after that, Emile Krebs but I am getting ahead of myself. We must first explore numbers a little more.
‘Foster.’ Said Sirius. ‘I want you to create a double transposition cypher from a plain text message. After you have created the cypher you will then have to provide the two plain text decryption keys to me so that the code can be unlocked’ It took me a few hours while Sirius read quietly at his desk. I was nine years old so some regard must be given to that fact.
I made the cypher too complicated and eventually found that the best designed codes are simple-structured “bad” codes that generally outperform more complex “good” ones. Sirius broke the code with the keys I provided and explained in great detail the relationship between security and code and its necessity throughout history. He insisted that cyphers can and will save your life and alpha/numerical codes had saved thousands of lives in the past. ‘If it had not been for the allies ability to break the codes emanating from the third Reich using the ‘enigma’ decryption method the war would have taken a much grimmer turn…..as if it had not been grim enough.
Modern computers can draw a direct line of origin from Alan Turing, the enigma encryption and decryption methods resulting from their use in the war.
After a while, interrupted by ‘spins’ and adventures in and around Geneva to break up the tedium I became a passable code maker but a more effective code buster. My taste for nihilism appeared to be innate. My tutor could see my delight in cracking a cypher and he said. ‘To destroy was sometimes better than to make because destruction by its very nature implies renewal.’ Sirius called it the Phoenix principle…rising from the ashes and all that. Which was a rather circular notion but he was actually quite a strange and sombre man who was in command of a powerful intellect, a polymath.
He taught me many things about the world and how to be in it. He taught me about philosophy, history and the arts as well as the biology, physics and chemistry. He introduced me to Darwin which immediately solved any spiritual questions I might have had, for there was no clearer answer to the question of biological emergence than the ‘The Origin of Species’. From then on it seemed completely absurd to replace a system of understanding that existed entirely on proven evidence with belief systems that produced not one scrap of evidence.
Sirius disputed the existence of Jesus himself using some convincing evidence. He told me there was absolutely no reference to Jesus by his contemporaries. There are many accounts, he said, by various scholars of momentous events at the time and location without even a scrap written on so much as the back of a papyrus envelope, of any religious leader called Jesus. No evidence of a person who was a miracle man curing the maimed and sick, feeding the poor by producing fishes and loaves out of thin air as related in the gospels of the Christian bible. These would have been noteworthy and highly reportable occurrences by his contemporaries but not a one contemporary account exists. That, Sirius said was because it never happened. The only evidence of the behaviour of King Herod and Pontius Pilate in regard to Jesus are from the Gospels written ‘anno domini’ and not confirmed by either person or any contemporary….why not asks Sirius, because it is not true? The only ‘evidence’, for instance, for ‘the slaughter of the innocents’ is from the gospel according to St.Matthew. This is now considered a lie as it lacks proof of any kind and goes against actual historical data available in regard to Herod, who, by all accounts, was a sensible and humane leader and not an infantacidal maniac.
The same can be said of Pontius Pilate’s so-called implication in Jesus’s death. There is no evidence whatsoever, that the roman prefect ever had to adjudicate against a man called Jesus and therefore had no cause to crucify such a man. If these are falsehoods then much of what the bible purports to be true must be questionable. The very name ‘Jesus’ only ever appears in the gospels. There is some mention of an obscure sect called ‘Chrestus’ but no particular person rose to prominence within this small group according to secular historical records and even this reference to a cult has been disputed by scholars.
Sirius softened these accusations by implying that there were some terrific stories in the old testament of such violence, injustice and histrionics that for any young boy not to be entranced by them would render them inhuman. ‘Take it all with a grain of salt and stay away from the rather insipid, in comparison, New Testament.’ He said. With the old Hebrew bible, the stories of Han Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers I experienced a good grounding in preposterous and morally suspect fairy stories which did me no harm at all.
Needless to say my education via Sirius was of a highly secular complexion and formed my own atheistic tendencies. Sirius was never patronizing nor did he appear to think it strange that he was tutoring a child who was his intellectual equal. I was, however, a blank page when it came to experience and it must have been a bit irritating to be continually asked the most inane questions.
He was also a great fan of my mother and in fact he and my mother seemed to enjoy an affinity that exceeded their professional relationship. Whenever he could he attended her concerts and Opera performances.We listened to many hours her recordings and I began to understand the purity of her voice. He occasionally took me to rehearsals and I could see the enormous effort it took to be so splendid. I barely knew her as a person so I became intimately acquainted with the next best thing, her remarkable talent.
Sirius told me about his life. What I considered to be an amazing adventure was to him a grave and torturous set of events. He taught me the history of the Second World War in the form of an autobiography. Among many other things, he told me that he was a Jew and his family were of the academic class in Vienna prior to the war.
Both his parents were professors and he had an older brother and sister. He told me wonderful stories of living in Vienna in the thirties. His father and mother were part of a group of active intellectuals who frequented the famous Cafe Louvre in the late afternoon and evenings discussing the issues of the day and especially the troubling events that were occurring in neighbouring Germany.
Young Sirius met political refugees, famous writers, composers and foreign correspondents who frequented Cafe Louvre. It was also a source of information for spies. Theirs was a happy family full of a life of books, music and art but they all died, murdered by the Nazi’s after the German Reich’s annexation of Austria in 1939, commonly known as the Anschluss.
His parents were arrested at the university and taken back to their home where they were told to pack one bag and bring the children including Sirius who was twelve years old. They were thrown in a squalid temporary detention centre outside of Vienna after which they were transported to Mathausen-Gusen concentration camp just outside the city of Linz.
He and his brother survived until 1945 because they were strong enough to work. By April the allies were on route through Austria liberating town by town with little resistance. Despite direct orders from Himmler to exterminate them all at the eleventh hour, the surviving inmates were put to work to build barricades to defend the camp against the imminent approach of the enemy. Conditions were appalling at this point with rations down to the barest minimum and the inmates were weak and diseased.
Sirius’s brother was in group designated to move equipment. After they completed the task they were all machine gunned and buried in one of the tunnels that perforated the camp. The camp commandant, Franz Ziereis, an SS idealogue clearly had no idea what he was up against but when he did finally understand that US army was about to knock on the camps doors, he and his wife fled to his hunting lodge on the Pyhrn mountain. Shortly after he was exposed by a local farmer and the dreadful creature was shot trying to escape. He was brought back to the camp severely wounded and died shortly after. His body was hung on the fence by his former prisoners.
Most of the SS guards had run away with some thirty choosing to remain in the hope of receiving mercy. Sirius stayed long enough to watch all of these guards being shot dead by the surviving inmates strong enough to hold a gun while the US troops stood by. He said he was offered a gun to join the executioners but refused. He quoted to me Albert Camus “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
He said he was sorely tested on that day because the temptation to tear the guards to pieces with his bare hands, let alone shoot them, was immense. Instead he forced himself to watch the killings and then retreated behind an American tank and wept silently for his family. He said he knew that no amount of revenge was going to compensate for the terrible loss of his dear parents and siblings.
At seventeen he had not only lost his family but any hope of true happiness. He said the camp had brutalized him forever, that he had in some ways lost his humanity. I knew he was wrong about that because he was the kindest and most generous person I had ever known. He also told me sternly that war was a stupid game played by men who refused to grow up and that he expected that this would be the one game I would never play.
I finish this chapter in the shadow of the numerical significance of seven once again for it was at 7pm on the 21st of July 1983 that I once again renewed my acquaintance with Emile Krebs. I had not seen him since the strange encounter during the farmer’s riot at the Eiffel Tower. In the next chapter events take a turn for the worse as a result of this meeting.
I can relate that Shane’s knapsack is once again prevailed upon to provide assistance.
You may be asking will I be continuing in this rather maudlin vain and if so could I please desist as it is aggravating your gout.
I am not here to facilitate recovery from any health issues you may have. Nevertheless I know from personal experience that Lark vomit offers some relief.
You also may be wondering whether Sirius might have been getting a bit of the leg over with the inestimable Giselda. I have no firm evidence but it is entirely likely.
Not that it is any of your business!
Sadly Sirius will not be reappearing but will be present in spirit.