The Airbus 320 touched down at Madrid’s Barajas airport on this hot June day, puffs of dust rising from the wheels. Marcello Thyssen was the first to leave, as always, from his seat in Business Class, with a merry but deferential « Goodbye Mr T. » from the young member of the crew who had seen to his needs throughout the flight. « Enjoy your stay in Madrid ». Thyssen, or Mr T. as he was known by thousands of people – from air crew to Presidents – turned to the young woman with the smile he was renowned for world-wide, looked at her with his no-less famous extraordinary sparkling eyes and said « Thank you Francesca », with a charm that would persuade a nun to go and work in a whorehouse.
Tall and agile, with high cheekbones, roman nose, Salvador Dali moustache, and goatee beard, dressed as always, winter or summer, north or south, in a black cape and matching Fedora hat, he was instantly recognisable wherever he went. No-one seemed to know his age or where he was born, nor how he had come by the billions he was thought to be worth. Rumours abounded of course, and one which constantly surfaced was that he was an investment banker who had made his fortune through financial schemes which had rarely been matched in their ruthlessness. It was believed he had created then crashed pension and student funds, forcing tens of thousands of people into poverty; stripped the assets of working companies and sold them off one by one, like a market stall selling children’s clothes sock by sock, shoe by shoe, t-shirt by t-shirt. At cut price. Putting thousands of workers out of their jobs.
His week had started in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament was in full session. At such times, Marcello Thyssen would take a taxi the 50 kilmetres to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller, and from there to the Natzwiller-Struthof concentration camp outside the village. Small by Nazi standards, Struthof was the only concentration camp on French soil. Perched high in the Alsatian Vosges in the middle of beautiful scenery, it boasted everything a good concentration camp should have – impassible double wooden gate wound with barbed wire; scaffold in the centre of the main square; rows of camp huts; gas chamber; and crematorium. But Thyssen didn’t come here to admire the scenery. It was to contemplate the camp itself, ever as silent as the death it had witnessed. To walk between the huts, stroke the scaffold, breathe in the air of the gas chamber and the crematorium. In a kind of reverie, an expression on his face unreadable to other visitors, but which masked deep and complex thoughts, although the shadow of a smile would occasionally cross his face. Standing out in his cape and Fedora as he sat sometimes for hours in contemplation, he would occasionally be approached by a visitor and asked of his interest in the camp. « I’m an art historian », he would say, « with a special penchant for history as art … and art as history. »
Marcello Thyssen came to Madrid often, even if it meant a detour in his journey, and he came for one reason only – the ecstatic pleasure and inspiration he enjoyed from its art. His early flight from Brussels today allowed him to check into his hotel and be out by 10:00am.
His first stop was the Museo Reina Sofia and Picasso’s Guernica. He knew that most people had only ever seen prints on posters or in books, tiny, reduced, and that is why he came so often to see the original – at 7.76 metres long and 3.59 metres tall the sheer size and power of it are phenomenal, and its gradations of black and white give it an unearthly feel which sends shivers down most people’s backs. But Thyssen felt no shivers. As he took in for the hundredth time every detail and then the whole scope of the painting, he was as cold as ice. There are many interpretations of the painting, but Thyssen had just one, which he clung to, knowing it to be true, and it enthralled him. The destruction of man by man.
He had flown in from Brussels where he had met with the Presidents of the European Commission and Council, and had private meetings with representatives of all political parties in the European Parliament, now back from Strasbourg, listening acutely, commenting occasionally, rapt by what he heard.
Despite his reputation in business, which was almost certainly true, the politicians and officials, like their counterparts everywhere, had a convenient blindspot when it came to dealing with very wealthy ‘leaders of industry’, however darkly they had come by their wealth. And it was indeed a measure of his myth that after two or three years of complete absence from Brussels – his long ‘disappearances’ were as much a part of the myth as his sudden re-appearances – at a day’s notice he could arrange appointments with just about anyone he liked.
But no-one could ignore that his re-appearance and back-to-back meetings happened to coincide with the last days, weeks, or months of the UK’s membership of the European Union. Like a magpie he picked up nice shiny information – official and not – and like a raven he tore it apart into the appropriate categories, boxes and folders of his mind. And he gave advice, eagerly lapped up by his interlocutors. Beaming as he went from building to building, he charmed even the highest of officials and politicians. If he had wanted, he could certainly have persuaded the most extreme-left politicians to go out, wave nazi flags and goose-step their way through the Metro. But he used his charm, his charisma, carefully. He knew he could turn it on and off when he wanted.
He always started with Goya – not the namby-pamby commissions of kings, queens, aristocrats and their ugly children, but the etchings, The Horrors of War, which never failed to arouse and excite him by the very essence of truth that Goya communicated with only pen, ink and paper. Corpses, men bayonetted or hanged, naked or with scraps of clothing on their dead, dying, or mutilated bodies. What man can do to man, with a little help. Pure simple genius.
And on to The Black Paintings. Giants, mad white eyes, crowds of lunatics, masses of depraved humanity – and primal savagery as Saturn, wide-eyed and insane, devours his own son. Goya – seeing, internalising, then expressing the seething mass of human darkness. Sublime. Perfect.
Bosch was his next and last stop. The Garden of Earthly Delights. Like Guernica, Thyssen knew you had to see the original. One of the greatest examples of Early Netherlandish painting, it is monumental, phenomenal – 3.9 metres long and 2.2 metres tall – and yet minutely detailed, Like all visitors, Thyssen could spend hours looking at Bosch’s phantasmagorical creatures and inventions, but while most people concentrated on the ‘erotic derangement’ of the middle panel, he just stared and stared at the right-hand panel – the nightmare – a tableau of the most imaginative and creatively cruel ways of killing and torture ever painted – either before and rarely after. It was the very definition of suffering and horrifying death. A turning point.
In the last week he had again made his favourite European art historian’s pilgrimage, if you could call it that, back in time from Struthof to Guernica to Goya to Bosch – 1940 to 1500. And now, finishing the exquisite meal in his Madrid hotel, he decided to go to the bar for a nightcap. He ordered a Ponche Caballero with two ice cubes and begin sipping it with obvious pleasure. Two men came into the bar, sat near him but were slightly hidden due to its rounded shape and light Art Deco columns. Getting off his bar stool, one of them looked over and with a big smile said:
« Mr T! Fancy seeing you here. So good to meet you again – and so soon after Strasbourg and Brussels ».
« Mr Woods and Mr Bryant. Good evening to you. I’m just passing through Madrid and I always stay here. But isn’t it, shall I say, a little luxurious for Members of the European Parliament? »
« One might say that », said Woods, but with our very flexible expense accounts, and the fact that it looks like we Brits won’t be MEPs for much longer, we thought we’d splash out. And get a good night’s sleep as we’re looking for new jobs, starting here, tomorrow. »
« Ah yes. Times change and people with it, new alliances are made, all the balls are thrown in the air. 2019. It’s been a long time. »
He finished his Ponche, slipped off his stool, shook hands with Woods and Bryant, wished them luck, and walked towards the door, where he stopped, turned and said, quietly, in less like a passing comment, but more like an ultimatum: « Gentlemen, it’s time … ! » and from there he went up to his suite.
Sitting in front of the mirror on his dressing table, Marcello Thyssen opened his eyes, took out his contact lenses, and dropped them into a glass of water. A shower of sparkles exploded in the glass like fireworks at Disneyland. He removed his cape, pushed a small silver button on his belt, and from a perfectly tailored hole at the base of his spine rolled out what looked like a wide leather whip which, as it hit the marble floor with a quiet ding, revealed its end to be a flat piece of black metal, very light and the shape of a large arrow head; the whole thing twitched and moved as Thyssen went about his business.
He removed his Fedora and smoothly, gently, stroked the two shiny protrusions of bone on, and at either side, of his skull. Then, looking once more in the mirror, he took his comb – old, beautiful, engraved with symbols and made of bone – and meticulously combed back the thick grey-white hair between the protrusions. His eyes, no longer sparkling, were now speckled green, and his pupils no longer round but vertical splits.
When he had finished, he looked at himself in the mirror, broke into one of his world-famous smiles and said:
« Oh yes, it’s time … it’s time … once again. »