Authors: Susan Howatch
Table of Contents
More praise for Susan Howatch
“Imagine that authors Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch have met by chance one sultry summer night outside of Ely Cathedral, in England’s East Midlands. . . . Their intellects unite into a feverishly literate, ravishingly incisive and often-comic embrace. The result of that peculiar coupling might very well have been author Susan Howatch.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Fascinating . . . You won’t find a novelist, Christian or otherwise, with a better grasp of the human psyche than Susan Howatch. The breadth and depth of her psychological sophistication is inspiring.”
“Howatch writes thrillers of the heart and mind. . . . Everything in a Howatch novel cuts close to the bone and is of vital concern.”
“Startling . . . [The] suspense builds.”
“Highly entertaining . . . Howatch does a great job of quickly hooking the reader into her unfolding story. . . . A suspense novel mixed with Gothic overtones and spiritual dimensions, this story works on almost every level.”
“Another winner . . . Good and evil clash in gripping, intellectually satisfying ways. . . . Vivid and absorbing dispatches from one of the best correspondents on the war between darkness and light.”
“[A] psychological-spiritual thriller . . . Entertaining and intellectually stimulating.”
FLIRTING WITH THE ENEMY
There is no shortage of highly individualised beliefs. In fact I am constantly
amazed at what people
believe; half-remembered bible stories, odd bits of
science fiction, snippets of proverbial wisdom passed on through grandmothers or
We are bombarded with different beliefs, different values, different customs,
different interpretations. Experts give us different and incompatible analyses. We
are faced with a kaleidoscope of different images. And the overall effect, I
suggest, is to reduce all differences to the same level, to make us immune to real
distinctions, to imply that the most we can hope for is not truth but mere
Confessions of a Conservative Liberal
A helpful exercise is to ask ourselves what our main life-shaping desires are. What
do we most want to do and be? What are the priorities we feel most deeply about?
DAVID F. FORD
The Shape of Living
When I first saw my temporary secretary it never occurred to me to flirt with him. Even in 1990, when suing for sexual harassment was still considered to be primarily an American activity, an office flirtation would have been considered unwise for a high flyer, and besides, this particular male hardly struck me as being irresistible. He had curly hair, chocolate-coloured eyes and a chunky, cherubic look. My taste in men has never encompassed overgrown choirboys.
Walking into my office I found him stooped over my computer, and since I was not expecting a male secretary I assumed he was someone from the maintenance department. I did notice that he was dressed as an office drone in a grey suit, drab tie and white shirt, but maintenance men often resembled office drones these days; it was a side-effect of the technological revolution.
Abruptly I demanded: “What’s the problem?” and added for good measure: “Who the hell are you?” I always feel irritable on Monday mornings.
He glanced up, decided I was just another dumb blonde hired to massage a keyboard and made the big mistake of adopting a patronising manner. “Relax, sweet pea,” he said casually, “I’m the temp from Person-Power International! I’ve been assigned for two weeks to Mr. Carter Graham.”
I dropped my bag on the visitor’s chair, folded my arms across my chest and dug my high heels into the carpet. Then I said in a voice designed to bend nails: “
The man jumped as if stung by a bee, and as his head jerked up I realised that his square jaw was incompatible with the choirboy image. “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said at once. “I must have misunderstood the lady in personnel who directed me here.”
“The lady in personnel must be suffering from amnesia. She knows I only work with female temps.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am, but let me reassure you by saying—”
“No, but I can do everything women and gays can do with computers, and I’ve even taken a course in DTP.”
I saw no reason to put up a front by pretending to know what this latest technological time-waster was. “DTP?”
“Desk-Top Publishing, ma’am.”
“I don’t approve of dubious activities taking place on a desk-top. Are you seriously—
—trying to tell me that PersonPower International have had the nerve to send a heterosexual white Anglo-Saxon male to work in my office?”
“Maybe they see it as their contribution to multiculturalism, ma’am.”
Worried about my ability to keep a straight face I turned aside, tramped to the window and stared at the crowded street four floors below. Only after I had carefully counted to ten did I swing back to face him and say: “All right, so be it. Welcome to Curtis, Towers.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“But now you listen to me, and you listen well. This is a first-names office but you and I are going to use surnames for the duration of your time here. I’m not having all those hormones and pheromones stimulated by any pseuds’-corner office intimacy.”
“In that case would you care to be addressed as Miss Graham, Mrs. Graham or Ms. Graham?”
“Well, I certainly didn’t go through a wedding ceremony only to be called ‘Miss’ at the end of it, and I’m not Mrs. Graham, I’m Mrs. Betz. But my marital status is hardly your concern.”
“Right, Ms. Graham.”
“And your name is—”
“Okay, Tucker, get me unsugared coffee, black as pitch and strong enough to make an elephant levitate. Then we’ll start to flay the fax till it screams for mercy.”
He never asked where the coffee machine was or where he could make coffee or whether he would be able to obtain a takeaway from the cafeteria. He just responded smartly: “Yes, ma’am,” and zipped out of the room. That impressed me. But I also heard the note of amusement in his voice and knew I was not the only one who had played the scene poker-faced but tongue-in-cheek. That alarmed me. Sharing the same sense of humour can be a snare in an office setting. Humour leads to intimacy which leads to loss of detachment which leads to bad judgement which leads to a mess. I resolved to be on my guard.
I wished he were much younger than I was, but I thought he too was probably in his mid-thirties. Younger men were easier to muzzle and keep on a short leash; younger men were less likely to think a woman’s place was not in the boardroom; younger men were easier to intimidate, control and organise. But this smooth-talking item was not a younger man. Nor, I was sure, was he ever again going to remind me of an elderly cherub or an overgrown choirboy.
At that point I spent three seconds wondering why he was working as a temporary secretary and three seconds wondering, in the casual way one does with new acquaintances of the opposite sex, what he was like in bed. Then I said to myself impatiently: “Bloody sex! Why are we all so obsessed with it?” and focused my mind instead on the intricate fiscal affairs of my major clients, the Unipax Transworld Corporation.
Arriving home at seven I mixed my first drink of the day and moved out onto the balcony to survey the sky. It was pale blue with puffs of wispy white. The sun was still some way from the horizon, but in the distance the gothic towers and spires of the Palace of Westminster were already forming a shadowy mass streaked with slanting shafts of gold.
I breathed deeply, swallowed a mouthful of my vodka martini and turned my attention from the City of Westminster to its neighbour, the City of London. The square mile of the capital’s financial district stretched to the south and east far below; I saw it as a dense, man-made jungle knifed by skyscrapers which reflected the powerful rays of the setting sun as if they were shards of mirrored glass rising from a dung-heap. Half a mile away the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral appeared to float above the canyons of Cheapside and Old Bailey like an exotic mushroom blooming on an unkempt lawn.
The phone rang.
Stepping back into the living-room I grabbed the receiver. “Hullo?”
There was no reply.
My right hand tightened its grip on my glass. “Hullo?” I repeated sharply, but when the silence remained unbroken I hung up. Immediately the phone rang again. This time, without waiting for the silence, I snarled: “Get a life!” and slammed the receiver into its cradle.
Seconds later, to my disgust, the bell rang yet again, but this time I merely picked up the receiver and waited.
“Kim! My God, was that you a moment ago?”
“It sure was! What’s going on?”
“Just some nutter misdialling—forget it. How’s New York?”
“Can’t wait to step into Concorde tomorrow! How’s life at Curtis, Towers?”
“Lurid as ever—and to cap it all I’ve got a male temp for two weeks.”
“I hate to admit it, but he’s better than any female PA I’ve ever had.”
“Men always outperform women whenever they take on women’s jobs.”
“So when are they going to take over pregnancy and childbirth? Kim, if you were on this side of the Atlantic I’d—”
“I bet. And while we’re on the subject of slappable behaviour, let me tell you this: if the new hired help makes a pass at you I’ll have his balls on toast for breakfast.”
“If the new hired help makes a pass at me,
have his balls on toast for breakfast! And talking of sex, darling . . .” The conversation slid into an exchange of private intimacies.
After I had hung up I returned to the balcony to watch the next stage of the long sunset. Years ago, on my arrival in the capital I had not realised how many Londons there were; the place which I had always thought of as London I had quickly learned to call the West End. That was where the tourists went to see the sights and squander money on shopping. Then there was the East End where, before the Docklands redevelopment schemes, no one from the West End ever went, a huge impoverished territory where fierce indigenous tribes warred with successive waves of immigrants. And finally, between the rich West End and the poor East End, like a jewel wedged between a marble slab and an earthen floor, lay the fabled “City,” the oldest London of all, Roman Londinium, sacked by Boadicea, ravaged by the Saxons, plundered by the Vikings, conquered by the Normans, decimated by the Plague, razed by the Great Fire, blitzed by the Luftwaffe, but surviving all this radical pruning to flourish more fiercely than ever. In the 1980s, fired by the Prime Minister whom it revered as a goddess, it had gone mad with excitement and mushroomed into the greatest money-market on earth. Sparse on regulation, prolific in financial opportunities, it had become a gold-plated circus stuffed with predators from all over the globe. Of course the doomsters had said the money-miracle would never last, but who had had the time to listen? The great goddess would take care of the City, that huge jewel in the forefront of her tiara, and the great goddess had expressed her intention of being worshipped to the end of the millennium and beyond.
But there was a chill wind now whispering up the Thames from the east and laying icy fingers on all those unsold new developments in Docklands. The great roulette wheel of the property market had ceased to spin. The 1980s were over, and an unknown and perhaps very different decade lay ahead. Mrs. Thatcher, the great goddess, was still behaving as if she could take care of everything, but her nemesis, the poll tax, was pushing her deeper and deeper into the political quicksands, and recently there had even been riots in Trafalgar Square. Mrs. Thatcher was starting to look fallible at last, and once confidence in her was lost, the political predators would tear her apart. Female high flyers could plummet to earth faster than any man; the men surrounding them would always make sure of that. I shuddered as I thought of that long fall, and as I looked down on London that evening from the thirty-fifth floor of Harvey Tower, I noted again that the giant building cranes were disappearing from the landscape as the economy halted, inflation rose and darkness began to fall at last on the City.
The river was glowing in the dusk like molten lava snaking from a volcano. Back in the living-room I sat at my telescope and focused it on the Houses of Parliament upstream in Westminster. The towers and spires were now as black and jagged as a tramp’s teeth. I decided it was time to think about dinner.
I ate some sardines and a medium-cut slice of wholemeal bread, toasted but unbuttered. It was an austere meal but the very act of eating reminded me of the dinner-party which we were planning to give at the end of the week. To crown Mrs. Thatcher’s troubles, the beef market had collapsed. Could I really foist portions of a potentially mad cow on my guests in the manner of the Minister of Agriculture who had recently attempted to proclaim the safety of British beef by ramming a hamburger into the mouth of his four-year-old daughter? No. I tried to console myself by thinking that all over England menus were being reduced to chaos by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but this hardly made my ordeal easier to face. It would be the first dinner-party Kim and I had given since our wedding, and although I had researched the subject of etiquette with a lawyer’s attention to detail, I still felt that the whole exercise resembled sitting an exam where one small slip meant total failure.
In addition to the menu I was worrying about the wine. I knew a good claret had to be at least ten years old, but Kim had said we could serve a 1985 St. Julien. I realised that ’85 was a good year, possibly the best year for claret in the eighties, but could we really get away with cutting such a corner when at least one of the guests was an oenophile? It was all very well for Kim to glide around the conventions; everyone knew he was only a naturalised Englishman and allowances were always made for foreigners, but as a woman I had to get everything not only right but perfect. That was how I had survived in the City among all those sabre-toothed male predators. Survival meant being in control of every single detail of every single project—and I was still a long way from being in control of this dinner-party looming at the end of the week.
Having reached this conclusion I felt so stressed out that I gave way to the urge to binge on cornflakes. Before meeting Kim I had kept my kitchen a cereal-free zone but Kim liked cornflakes and I had fallen into the habit lately of snitching three or four flakes at a time to soothe my nerves. However, at least flake-snitching was an improvement on smoking. I had given up cigarettes two years, six months and fourteen days before.
Still munching I slumped down on the sofa, grabbed the television’s remote control and zapped my way into
in the hope of diverting myself from any further thoughts about the dinner-party.
The pest who had made the first phone call that evening remained silent but I felt no spasm of curiosity because I knew very well who she was.
I had long since begun to wish that legislation could be introduced to curb ex-wives who turned into stalkers.
Before I say more about Sophie I need to say more about Kim.
I had met him seventeen months ago at Heathrow Airport before he had made the move to Graf-Rosen and I had made the switch to Curtis, Towers. In consequence neither of us was travelling first class, but as the airlines had already started to pamper business-class passengers, we were allowed to congregate in a private lounge where even a barman and waiter had been planted to spare us the effort of mixing our own complimentary drinks. Passengers destined for other flights on that airline were also milling around and taking up too much space, but just as I was thinking I would have to drink my vodka martini standing up I noticed a man relaxing alone at a seating arrangement for two on the far side of the lounge.
What happened next may seem hard to believe, but our glances really did meet across that crowded room. I suppose this situation became a cliché simply because it does happen so often, but my first reaction, I have to admit, was to think cynically of those implausible 1950s movies starring Doris Day.
Kim’s glance travelled idly over me, moved on, halted and swivelled back. At another time I might have adopted a remote air and gazed at the ceiling, but at home there was a letter from the lover who had just dumped me, and I had certain things to prove to myself in order to heal my bruised self-esteem. Gliding over to this well-dressed stranger, who I at once recognised had the poise of a successful businessman, I indicated the empty chair and said two words. They were: “May I?”
“Make my day.”
This response naturally triggered memories of Clint Eastwood, but not for long; I was too busy feeling like Grace Kelly about to vamp Cary Grant, and the next moment I was taking a closer look at this big fish whom I was busy teasing with a shrimping-net. I might have been acting out a romantic cliché, but I was well aware that Kelly and Grant had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a genius much admired for his depiction of psychopaths.
But this big fish seemed more like a dolphin than a shark. He had dark hair, silver at the sides, blue eyes, deep grooves at the corners of his wide, subtle mouth, and a furry-purry voice guaranteed to reduce a Rottweiler to a lap-dog. I judged him to be in his late forties, certainly in the prime of middle age, and I knew I had not mistaken the shimmer of success which gave his blunt-featured good looks such a glitzy sheen.
“Going far?” he said as I sat down.
“Only three thousand miles.”
“The New York flight?”
“Uh-huh. You too?”
He nodded. “Staying at the Pierre?”
“Not this time.”
“Too bad!” He smiled again. His teeth were slightly uneven but I liked that. I was bored with capped teeth which had had all the individuality tortured out of them. By this time I was aware that although he spoke with a faint American accent there had been something European about the way he pronounced “Pierre.”
“Business or pleasure?” he was asking idly.
“Both, I hope!”
He finished his Scotch and gestured to my glass. “What are you drinking?”
I told him. He snapped his fingers. The harassed waiter stopped dead in his tracks and took the order for another round.
“Well, thank you,” I said, “Mr.—”
“My name’s Joachim Betz, but you don’t have to get your tongue around that first name—or the last. Kim will do.”
“Not exactly. I’ve been English for a long time now.”
“So have I.”
“You’re not English?”
We smiled, savouring our inexactness, before I said: “I’m British but not English. I’m a Scot. My name’s Carter Graham, Carter as in President Jimmy.”
He asked no questions but accepted the odd first name as if it were commonplace. “I was born in Argentina,” he said. “My father was smart enough to escape from the Nazis before the war.”
“Your parents were Jewish?”
“Only my father. So by Jewish rules I don’t qualify, but I confess that in New York it often suits me to let people assume I’m a Jew.”
“I’ve never found there’s much mileage in being a Scot in London.”
“How about all those Scots who have made it to the top of the British Establishment?”
“Yes, a great bunch—and all of them men!”
He laughed. “
Res ipsa loquitur?
Res ipsa loquitur!
It was as if we had exchanged the password which signalled membership of a secret confraternity. That Latin tag, “the matter speaks for itself,” is one of the first phrases any lawyer learns.
“What’s your field?” he demanded.
“Tax. And yours?”
“Investment banking . . . But is being Scottish really such a handicap for a woman practising law in this enlightened day and age?”
“What enlightened day and age?”
“Well, since we now have a female prime minister—”
“She’s a goddess. That’s different.”
I sized him up and decided to risk a touch of satire.