Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
‘I thought all he’d done was build a lot of dungeons in Barcelona.’
‘Ever been to Spain, old man?’
‘No, I haven’t, as a matter of fact.’
‘Well, till you have I’d keep quiet about what Franco has and hasn’t done.’
1 silently counted five.
‘Sorry. Forget it. Do go on.’
‘As it happens I’ve read some of Mosley’s stuff, and a lot of it makes sense.’ He articulated the words with curt clarity. ‘Quite a lot ofsense.’
I m sure.
He metaphorically preened his ruffled feathers and went on.
‘My twin came back, the old bloke left us for a few minutes and actually she was, seemed, damn sweet. Course I played up the hurt line and sort of indicated that a little stroll in the moonlight later would help me get back to normal. And then, she said wham—Stroll? How about a swim? And believe me, old boy, you only had to hear her say it to see swimming might lead to very interesting other activities. Midnight on the dot, at the gate. Okay, we go to bed at eleven, I sit round waiting for zero-hour. Slip out of the house. No problems. Get to the gate. Five minutes later, along she comes. And old man, I can tell you, I’ve been in some clinches in my time, but that girl lit up like a bomb. Began to think Operation Midnight Swim was going to be cancelled for a more important exercise. But she said she wanted to cool off for a while.’
‘I’m glad you didn’t tell me all this before I went. The disappointment would have killed me.’
He smiled condescendingly. ‘We got down to the beach. She says, I haven’t got a costume, do you mind going in first. I think, well maybe she’s shy, maybe she wants to do the necessary. Fine. Operation undress. She retires into the trees. Charley does exactly what he’s told, swims out fifty yards, treads water, waits two minutes, three, four, actually in the end about ten, begins to feel damn cold. Still no girl.’
‘And your clothes gone.’
‘You’ve got it, old boy. Stark naked. Standing on that bloody beach hissing the damn girl’s name.’ I laughed, but his smile was very thin. ‘So. Big joke. Message received. You can imagine how damned angry I was by then. I gave her half an hour to come back. Searched round. No go. Marched off to the house. Didn’t do my feet much good. Tore a bit of pine-branch off to cover the old privates if necessary.’
I was beginning to find it difficult not to grin all over my face; but I was clearly meant to share the outrage.
‘Through the gate, up the drive thing, towards the house. Go round the front. What do you think I see there?’ I shook my head. ‘A man hanging.’
‘No, old boy. They were doing the joking. Actually it was a dummy. Like one of those things you use in bayonet practice, yes? Filled with straw. Strung up with a rope round its neck. And my clothes on. Head painted to look like Hitler.’
‘Good God. What did you do?’
‘What could I do? Pulled the damn thing down and got my clothes off it.’
‘Nix. They’d gone. Hooked it.’
‘Caïque. Heard it down at Moutsa. Thought it was a fisherman. Left my bag out for me. Nothing pinched. Just that bloody four-mile walk back to the school.’
‘You must have been furious.’
slightly chokka. Yes.’
‘But you didn’t let them get away with it.’
He smiled to himself.
‘Right. Quite simple. I composed a little report. First about the thing during the war. Then a few little facts about where our friend Mr Conchis’s present political sympathies lay. Sent it to the appropriate quarters.’
‘Communist?’ Since the end of the civil war in 1950, Communists had been hounded relentlessly in Greece.
‘Knew some in Crete. Just said I’d seen a couple on Phraxos and followed them to his house. That’s enough, that’s all they want. A little bit goes a long way. Now you know why you never had the pleasure.’
I fingered the stem of my glass, thinking that, on the contrary, this absurd man beside me was probably why I had had ‘the pleasure’. Somewhere that previous year, as ‘June’ had admitted, they must have made a bad miscalculation, and given up: such an absence of cunning in the fox must have made them call off the hunt almost as soon as it started. What had Conchis said about my own initial participation being a matter of hazard? At least I had given them a run for their money. I smiled at Mitford.
‘And so you had the last laugh.’
‘Habit of mine, old boy. Suits my complexion.’
‘Why on earth did they do it in the first place? I mean, all right, they didn’t like you … but they could have given you the brush—off from the beginning.’
‘All that stuff about their being the old boy’s godchildren. All my eye. Course they weren’t. They were a pair of high-class tarts. Language the Julie one used gave the game away. Damn funny way of looking at you … suggestive.’ He glanced at me. ‘It was the sort of set-up you run across in the Mediterranean—especially your Eastern Mediterranean. I’ve met it before.’
‘I mean, quite crudely, old boy, that the rich Mr Conchis wasn’t quite up to the job, but he … shall we say … still got pleasure from seeing the job performed?’
Again I surreptitiously eyed him; knew myself lost in the interminable maze of echoes. Was he, or wasn’t he?
‘But they didn’t actually suggest anything?’
‘There were hints. I worked them out afterwards. There were hints.’
He went away and got two more gins.
‘You might have warned me.’
‘I did, old boy.’
‘Not very clearly.’
‘You know what Xan—Xan Fielding—used to do to any new chaps who were ‘chuted in when we were up in the Levka Ore?
Sent ‘em wham straight out on a job. No warnings, no sermons. Just “Watch it.” Okay?’
I disliked Mitford because he was crass and mean, but even more because he was a caricature, an extension, of certain qualities in myself; he had on his skin, visible, the carcinoma I nursed inside me. I had to suspect the old paranoia, that he might be another ‘plant’—a test for me, a lesson; but yet there was something so ineffably impervious about the man that I could not believe he was so consummate an actor. I thought of Lily de Seitas; how to her I must seem as Mitford did to myself. A barbarian.
We moved out of the Mandrake on to the pavement.
‘I’m off to Greece next month,’ he said.
‘Firm’s going to start tours there next summer.’
‘Oh God. No.’
‘Do the place good. Shake their ideas up.’
I looked down the crowded Soho street. ‘I hope Zeus strikes you with lightning the moment you get there.’
He took it as a joke.
‘Age of the common man, old boy. Age of the common man.’
He held out his hand. I would have dearly loved to have known how to twist it and send him wham straight over my shoulder. The last I saw of him was of a dark-blue back marching towards Shaftesbury Avenue; eternally the victor in a war where the losers win.
Years later I discovered that he
been acting that day, though not in the way that I feared. His name caught my eye in a newspaper. He had been arrested in Torquay on charges of issuing cheques under false pretences. He’d been doing it all over England, using the persona of Captain Alexander Mitford,
‘In fact,’ said prosecuting counsel, ‘although the accused went to Greece in the occupying forces after the German collapse, he played no part whatever in the Resistance.’ Later there was another bit: ‘Some time after demobilization Mitford returned to Greece, where he obtained a teaching post by forging false references. He was subsequently dismissed from this post.’
Late that afternoon I dialled the Much Hadham number. It rang a long time but then someone answered. I heard Lily de Seitas’s voice. She was out of breath.
‘It’s me. Nicholas Urfe.’
‘Oh, hallo.’ She said it with a bright indifference. ‘Sorry. I was in the garden.’
‘I’d like to see you again.’
There was a small pause. ‘I have no news.’
‘I’d still like to see you.’
I knew she was smiling, in the silence that followed.
She said, ‘When?’
I was out the next morning. When I got back, about two, I found Kemp had slipped a note under my door: ‘A Yank called. Says it’s urgent. Will come again four.’ I went down to see her. She was splaying great worms of viridian green with her thumb across murky black and umber explosions of Ripolin. She did not like to be interrupted when she was ‘making a painting’.
‘Said he must see you.’
‘Going to Greece.’ She stood stockily back, fag in mouth, contemplating her mess. ‘Your old job or something.’
‘But how did he find where I live?’
‘Don’t ask me.’
I stood staring at the note. ‘What sort of man was he?’
‘Christ, can’t you wait a couple of hours?’ She turned. ‘Buzz.’
He came at five to four, a tallish man with a lean body and the unmistakable cropped head of an American. He wore glasses, was a year or two younger than me; pleasant face, pleasant smile, pleasant everything ; as wholesome, and as green, as a lettuce. He thrust out a hand.
‘You’re Nicholas Urfe? Is that how I pronounce it? The lady … ‘
I made him come in. ‘Not much of a place, I’m afraid.’
‘It’s nice.’ He looked round for a better word. ‘Atmosphere.’ We clambered up the stairs.
‘I wasn’t expecting an American.’
‘No. Well. I guess it’s the Cyprus situation.’
‘I’ve been over here this last year at London University. All along I’ve been trying to figure how I could get myself a year in Greece before I return home. You don’t know how excited I am.’ We came to a landing. He saw some of the sewing-girls at work through an open door. Two or three of them whistled. He waved to them. ‘Isn’t that nice? Reminds me of Thomas Hood.’
‘Where did you hear about the job?’
The Times Educational Supplement.’
He gave even the most familiar English institutions an interrogative intonation, as if I might not have heard of them.
We came to my flat. I closed the door.
‘I thought the British Council had stopped doing the recruiting–’
‘Is that so? I suppose the school committee decided that as Mr
Conchis was over here he might as well do the interviewing.’ He had gone into the sitting-room and was looking at the view down grimy old Charlotte Street. ‘This is great. You know, I
this city.’ I indicated the least greasy of the armchairs.
‘And … Mr Conchis gave you my address?’
‘Sure. Was that wrong?’
‘No. Not at all.’ I sat on the window-seat. ‘Did he tell you anything about me?’
He raised his hand, as if I might need quietening down. ‘Well yes, he—1 do know, I mean … he warned me how dangerous these college intrigues can get. As I understand you had the misfortune he gave up. ‘You still feel sore about it?’
I shrugged. ‘Greece is Greece.’
‘I bet they’re rubbing their hands already at the thought of a real live American.’
‘They probably are.’ He shook his head, as if the thought that anyone could involve a real live American in a Levantine academic intrigue was almost past belief. I said, ‘When did you see Mr Conchis?’
‘When he was here three weeks ago. I’d have gotten in contact earlier, but he lost your address. He just sent it me from Greece. Only this morning.’
‘Only this morning?’
‘Yep. A cable.’ He grinned. ‘Surprised me too. I thought he’d forgotten about it. You … you know him pretty well?’
‘Oh I … met him a few times. I was actually never terribly clear about his position on the school committee.’
‘What he told me, no official position. Just helping out. Jesus, his English is marvellous though.’
We sized each other up. He had a relaxed way about him that seemed inculcated by education, by reading some book on How To Be At Ease With Strangers, rather than by any intuitive gift. Nothing, one felt, had ever gone wrong in his life; but he had a sort of freshness, an enthusiasm, an energy that couldn’t be totally cancelled by envy.
I analysed the situation. The natural coincidence of his appearing and my call to Much Hadham was so improbable that it was almost an argument in favour of his innocence. On the other hand Mrs de Seitas must have deduced from my telephone call that I was undergoing a change of heart; and this was nicely timed to test its genuineness. Yet telling me about the cable made him sound truly innocent; and though I had understood that the ‘subject’ had to be a matter of hazard, perhaps there was some reason, some unknown result of that summer, that had made Conchis decide to choose his next guinea-pig. Faced with the guileless, earnest Briggs I felt a little of what Mitford must have felt with me: a malicious amusement, bedevilled in my case by a European delight in seeing brash America being taken for a ride; and beyond that a kinder wish, which I would never have admitted to Conchis or Lily de Seitas, not to spoil his experience.
Of course they must have known (if Briggs was innocent) that I might tell him everything; but they also knew I knew the cost of it, if I did. It could only mean, to them, that I accepted nothing; and could be given nothing further in return. I was torn before the risks they took: tempted to punish, forced to admire. But finally, once again, I was left standing with the cat in my hand, unable to bring it down.
Briggs had pulled out a pad from the briefcase he had with him.
‘May I ask questions? I’ve got quite a list.’
And again: the coincidence. He was doing exactly what I had done only a few days before, at Dinsford House. His eager, deceitless face smiled up at me. I smiled back.
He was tcrrifyingly methodical. Teaching methods, textbooks, clothes, climate, sports facilities, medicines to take, food, the size of the library, what to see in Greece, character sketches of the other masters—he wanted information about every conceivable aspect of life on Phraxos. Finally he looked up from his pad and the notes he had copiously pencilled and took up the beer I had poured him.
‘Thanks a million. This is wonderful. Covers everything.’
‘Except the actual business of living there.’
He nodded. ‘Mr Conchis warned me.’
‘You speak Greek?’
‘Little Latin, less Greek.’
‘You’ll pick it up.’
Tm taking lessons already.’
‘And no women.’
He nodded. ‘Tough. But I’m engaged, so anyway.’ He produced a wallet and handed me a photo. A black-haired girl smiled rather intensely out at me. She had too small a mouth; I detected the ghostly beginnings of the mask of the bitch-goddess Ambition.
I handed it back. ‘Looks English.’
‘She is. Well, Welsh, actually. She’s studying drama right here in London.’
‘I thought maybe she could come out to Phraxos next summer. If I haven’t I got the sack by then.’
‘Did you … mention it to Mr Conchis?’
‘I did. And he was really nice about it. Even said she might be able to stay in his house.’
‘I wonder which one. He has two, you know.’
‘I think he said in the village.’ He grinned. ‘Matter of fact he said he’d make me pay for her room.’
‘Wants me to help him on this … ‘he made a kind of you-know gesture.
‘Didn’t you … ‘ but he obviously saw from my face that whatever it was, I didn’t. ‘Well, maybe
‘Oh good lord, you can tell me.’
He hesitated, then smiled. ‘It’s just that he does want it kept secret. I thought you might have heard, but if you didn’t meet him much … this remarkable find on his estate?’
‘You know the house? It’s some place on the other side of the island.’
‘I know where it is.’
‘Well, it seems part of a cliff fell away this summer and they’ve discovered what he believes to be the foundations of a Mycenean palace.’
‘He’ll never keep that quiet.’
‘I’d guess not. But he thinks he can for a while. Apparently he’s covered it up with loose dirt. Then next spring he’s going to dig. But naturally right now he doesn’t want everyone visiting all over.’
‘So I hope I shan’t be too bored.’
I saw Lily dressed as the snake-goddess of Knossos; as Electra; as Clytemnestra; Doctor Vanessa Maxwell, the brilliant young archaeologist.
‘Doesn’t sound as if you will.’
He finished his beer, and looked at his watch.
‘Jesus, I must run. I’m meeting Amanda at six.’ He shook my hand. ‘You don’t know how much this has meant to me. And believe me, I’ll write and let you know how it goes.’
‘Do that. I’d very much like to know.’
I followed him down the stairs and watched his crew-cut head. I began to understand why Conchis had picked him. If one had taken a million young college-educated Americans and distilled them down into one quintessential exemplar one would have arrived at something like Briggs. I did not like to think of the omnipenetrating Americans reaching to so private a European core. But I remembered his name; much more English than my own. And there was already Joe; the prosecuting Doctor Marcus.
We came out on the front step.
‘No last words of wisdom?’
‘I don’t think so. Just my very good wishes.’
We shook hands again.
‘You’ll be all right.’
‘You really think so?’
‘Of course you’ll find some of the experiences distinctly strange.’
‘Oh sure. Don’t think I’m not going with a wide open mind. And prepared for everything. Thanks to you.’
I gave him a long smile; I wanted him to remember that it was a smile that had said more than the occasion warranted. He raised his hand and set off. After a few paces he looked at his watch, and began to run; and in my heart I lit a candle to Leverrier.