Authors: Kyril Bonfiglioli
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers, #Suspense
… Bearing aloft another Ganymede
On pinions imped, as ’t were, but not past bearing,
Nor unfit yet for the fowler’s purposes;
Feathered, in short, as a prince o’ th’air – no moorgame.
If Paracelsus weighs that jot, this tittle,
God knows your atomy were ponderable –
(Love weighing t’other pan down!) …
… in a word,
In half a word’s space, – let’s say, ere you flinched,
Or Paracelsus wove one of those thoughts,
Lighter than lad’s-love, delicate as death,
I’d draft you thither.
I was off to the Americas – it was the first day of the hols. I sprang out of bed, calling for my bucket and spade, my sandshoes and my sun hat. Without the aid of stimulants I gambolled downstairs, carolling –
‘This time tomorrow I shall be
Far from this Academee,’
disturbing Jock who was moodily packing my lightweights for the American adventure.
‘You all right, Mr Charlie?’ he asked nastily.
‘Jock, I cannot tell you how all right I am –
“No more Latin, no more French,
No more sitting on the hard school bench,”’
I went on.
It was a fine morning which would have earned a
from Pippa herself. The sun was shining, the canary bellowing with joy. Breakfast was cold kedgeree of which I ate great store – nothing nicer – washed down with bottled beer. Jock was sulking a little at being left behind but was really looking forward to having the flat to himself; he has his friends in to play dominoes when I’m away, I believe.
Then I opened about a week’s accumulated mail, made out a paying-in slip, wrote a few cheques for the more importunate creditors, telephoned Dial-A-Dolly and dictated a dozen letters, had lunch.
Before setting out on a lengthy expedition I always have the same lunch which Ratty made for the Sea Rat and which they ate on the grass by the roadside. Ratty, you will remember,
reader, ‘ … packed a simple meal in which … he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine and garnered on far Southern slopes.’
I pity anyone whose saliva does not flow in sympathy with those beautiful lines. How many men of my age have tastes and appetites distantly governed by these – not even half-remembered – words?
Jock drove me to Mr Spinoza’s where we loaded the Silver Ghost with my suitcases (one pigskin, one canvas), and the book bag. Spinoza’s foreman, with almost Japanese good taste, had not hammered out the bullet dimple in the door but had drilled it out and inlaid a disc of burnished brass, neatly engraved with Spinoza’s initials and the date on which he had gone to meet his jealous god – ‘the Maker of the makers of all makes’ as Kipling has so deftly put it.
Spinoza and I had had some difficulty in dissuading Krampf from having a synchro-mesh gear-box fitted to the Ghost; now every sprocket and shaft in it was a perfect replica of the original contents of the box, with thirty thousand miles of simulated wear
lovingly buffed in by the naughty apprentice. The gears engaged in a way which reminded me of a warm spoon going in to a great deal of caviar. The foreman’s metaphor was perhaps more
than caviar – he likened it to having hasty congress with a lady of easy virtue whom he was in the habit of patronizing. I stared at the fellow: he was nearly twice my age.
‘I admire you,’ I cried, admiringly. ‘However do you manage to keep so virile in the evening of your days?’
‘Ah, well, Sir,’ he replied modestly, ‘your verality is a matter of your actual birth and breeding. My farver was a terrible man for rumpy-pumpy; he had hair thick as a yard-brush all down his old back to the day of his death.’ He dashed a manly tear away. ‘Not but what I don’t always feel quite up to the demands my lady friends make on me. Sometimes, Sir, it’s like trying to shove a marshmallow into a money-box.’
‘I know just what you mean,’ I replied. We shook hands with emotion, he received a furtive tenner with dignity, Jock and I drove away. Everyone in the workshop was waving except the naughty apprentice who was wetting himself with recondite laughter. I think he used to think I
him, for God’s sake.
Our progress to London Airport was almost royal; I found myself doing that wonderfully elliptical, downward-curving, quite inimitable wave that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother so excels at. One expected, naturally, a certain amount of
to be derived from hurrying noiselessly through London and its purlieus in £25,000 worth of pure white antique Rolls Royce, but I confess the merry laughter – the
mood – which our passage caused surprised me. It was not until we arrived at the Airport that I found the three inflated french letters, big as balloons, which the naughty apprentice had tied to our hood-stays.
At the Airport we found two surly, rat-faced men who denied that there ever was any such car, any such flight, any such
even. Jock finally lumbered out of the driving seat and said two short and dirty words to them, whereupon the relevant documents were found in the twinkling of a bloodshot eye. I gave them a ‘nicker’ on Jock’s advice and you’d have been surprised how smoothly the machinery rolled into motion. They drained the petrol out of the Rolls and disconnected the batteries. A beautiful young man with
eyelashes emerged from some fastness and produced a pair of
nippers from a leather case. He clipped little lead seals on to every openable aperture of the Ghost (which was already mounted on a pallet), then winked at Jock, sneered at me and flounced back to his embroidery. A customs man who had been watching this came forward and took away all the bits of paper the F.O. man had given me. A dear little tractor hooked itself on to the pallet and chugged away with it. I’ve never seen a Rolls look so silly. That seemed to be that. Jock walked me to the Passenger Building and I let him buy me a drink, because he likes to keep his end up in public, then we bade each other gruff farewells.
My flight was announced by Donald Duck noises from a loudspeaker; I arose and shuffled off towards the statistical improbability of dying in an airplane crash. Personally, the thought of such a death appalls me little – what civilized man would not rather die like Icarus than be mangled to death on a Motorway by a Ford Popular?
When they let us undo our belts again a nice American sitting next to me offered me a huge and beautiful cigar. He was so diffident and called me ‘Sir’ so nicely that I had to take it. (It really was a lovely one, from the
of Henry Upmann.) He told me confidentially and impressively that meeting one’s death in an airplane accident is a statistical improbability.
‘Well, that’s good news,’ I tittered.
‘Statistically,’ he explained, ‘you are in far greater hazard driving a three-year-old auto for eleven miles on a Freeway, according to the best actuaries.’
‘Really,’ I said – a word I only use when being told statistics by nice Americans.
‘You can bet on it,’ he said warmly. ‘Personally, I fly many, many thousands of miles every year.’
‘Well, there you are,’ I said politely. ‘Or rather, here you are, to prove the figures are right. What?’
‘Exactly,’ he said, drawing the word out.
We lapsed into a friendly silence, content with the rightness of our thinking, our cigars, teatlike, comforting our fears as our great gray dray horse of metal sped across St. George’s Channel on its bright and battering sandals. After a while he leaned towards me.
‘But just before take-off,’ he murmured, ‘don’t your ass-hole pucker just a leetle?’
I thought about it carefully.
‘More on landing, really,’ I said at last, ‘which is all wrong when you come to think about it.’
He thought about it for several minutes.
‘You mean, like in an elevator?’
He guffawed happily, his own man again now, reassured that all men are sphincters at bottom, if I may coin a phrase.
Having settled the amenities, we got out our
, like two old women at a quilting-bee. Mine took the shape of a dreary German paperback on the Settecento in Naples (it takes a German
to make that epoch dull) while he unzipped a document case full of computer paper, infinitely incomprehensible. I battled for a while with Professor Aschloch’s tulgey prose – only German poets have ever written lucid German prose – then closed my eyes, wondering bitterly which of my enemies the nice American worked for.
He had made one mistake in an otherwise flawless performance: he hadn’t told me his name. Have you ever exchanged three words with an American without being told his name?
I seemed to have made a great many enemies since Wednesday. The likeliest and nastiest possibility, the one which caused most
, was Colonel Blucher’s lot, whoever they were. Martland was a horrible bastard in his own insular way but he could never shake off that blessed British sense of perspective. The grim, unbelievably rich US Government Agencies were another matter. Too serious, too dedicated; they believe it’s all
Acid digestive juices, triggered by
, started to slosh about in my stomach and uneasy gurgles came from the small intestine. I positively welcomed the stewardess with her tray of pallid garbage; I shovelled the stuff down like a starving man while my nice American waved his away, all jaded and travelled and statistically improbable.
Ulcer appeased for the nonce by plastic smoked salmon, rubber chop in vitreous aspic, chicken turd wrapped in polystyrene bacon and weeping half-thawed strawberry on dollop of shaving soap, I felt able to examine the possibility that I might be mistaken and that the man was, after all, just a wholesome American dolt. (Like a British dolt, really, only with better manners.)
Why, after all, should anyone want to plant such a man on me? What could I get
to on the journey? What, if it came to that,
get up to on the journey? Extract a confession from me? Prevent me seizing command of the aircraft or overthrowing the Constitution of the United States? Surely, too, it would be a waste of an agent, for after several hours of propinquity I could scarcely fail to recognize him in the future. No; clearly, he must be what he seemed, an indifferent-honest executive, perhaps one of that super research firm which sells the State Department advice on where to start its next minor war. I turned to him, warm and relaxed, with new confidence. A man who smokes Upmanns cannot be all bad.
‘I say, forgive me, but what are you doing?’ I asked, in as British a way as I could muster. Gladly, he folded up the concertina of computer paper he had been grappling with (easy, though, for anyone who can handle an American Sunday newspaper) and turned amiably toward me.
‘Why, I’ve been uh correlating and uh collating and uh evaluating this very, very complete printout of costs-sales data on a retail multiplex in uh Great Britain, Sir,’ he explained candidly.
I continued to look at him, eyebrows hoisted a little, tiny, polite British question-marks shimmering from my hairline.
‘Fish and chips,’ he explained. I dropped the lower jaw a bit, achieving, I felt, an even more British effect.
‘Fish and chips?’
‘Right. I’m thinking of buying it.’
‘Oh. Really. Er, much of it?’
‘Well, yeah, kind of, all of it.’ I made interested, interrogatory faces and he went on, and on. It appeared that fish and chips represent the last £100M industry in Britain still unclobbered and that he was about to clobber it. Seventeen thousand friers, almost all independent and many of them only marginally profitable, using half a million tons of fish, a million tons of potatoes and 100 thousand tons of fat and oil. They use, he told me, whatever fish their ‘sender’ chooses to sell them and pay whatever they have to; frying the stuff, for the most part, in oil which a Hottentot would spurn as a sexual lubricant. He painted a grisly picture of the present and a rosy one of the future, when he would have bought all the shops and franchised them back on his terms.
It all seemed to make very good sense and I decided, as he droned usefully on, that I would provisionally believe him to be genuine at
least until we landed. In fact we rather chummed up, to the point where he asked me to come and stay at his apartment. Well, of course, I didn’t believe in him
much, so I’m afraid I told him that I would be staying at the British Embassy. He looked at me thoughtfully, then told me about his dream of getting a duke to be chairman of his English company.
‘Capital idea!’ I said heartily, ‘Can’t have too many of them. Wonderful little workers, every one. Mind you, there’s pretty stiff competition for your actual dukes today; even the merchant banks can’t seem to hold them any more, they’re all going into the menagerie trade as fast as they can. They may creep out into the open again now that Wilson’s gone, of course, but if I were you I’d settle for a marquess or a brace of earls: far more of them about and they’re much less uppity.’
‘Earls?’ he said. ‘Say, do you by any chance know the Earl of Snowdon?’ His eyes shone with innocence but I started like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons.
‘Certainly not,’ I twittered, ‘no no no. He’s something quite different again; anyway he’s got a job, at the Design Centre I think, terrible lot there, except him of course, designs elephant aviaries for the Zoo, jolly good ones I’m sure. Very capable. Capital fellow. Happily married; dear little wife. Yes.’ I subsided. He ground on implacably.
‘Parm me, but are you an aristocrat?’