Page 2

 Tim Powers

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The television antenna on the shingled roof swayed faintly in the wind against the gray sky...and now, for the first time, it reminded him of the ranked herringbone short-wave antennae on the high roof of the old Broadway Buildings headquarters of the SIS, and on the roof of the Soviet Embassy in Kensington Gardens, and then even of the makeshift antenna he had at one time and another furtively strung out the gabled windows of a succession of top-floor rooms in occupied Paris...
Et bloody cetera, he thought savagely, trying not to think of the last night of 1941.
In the old SOE code, raincoat had meant "violated-cover procedures," and until the false-alarm summons ten years ago he had never heard it used in a domestic context.
There was a gun in the house, though he'd have to dig through a trunk nowadays to find it: a.45 revolver that he'd modified according to Captain Fairbairn's advice, with the hammer-spur and the trigger guard and all but two inches of the barrel sawn off, and deep grooves cut into the wooden grips so that his fingers would always hold the gun the same way. It wasn't a gun for competition accuracy, but Captain Fairbairn had pointed out that most "shooting affrays" occurred at distances of less than four yards.
But it wouldn't be of much use across the expansive lawns of Green Park. And according to violated-cover procedures, he must consider himself blown here; his address was even printed in the telephone directory. Play by the old rules, he told himself with a shaky sigh, if only in respectful memory of the old Great Game.
He could get along without an actual raincoat, and he had at least ten pounds in his notecase.
He relaxed the pressure of his foot on the brake pedal and let the Vauxhall roll back down the street until he was able to turn it around in a neighbor's driveway, and then he shifted rapidly up through the gears as he drove off toward the road that would take him to the A316 and, in an hour or so, to some tube station not too far from the old Green Park in London.
Only three days earlier he had been out in his lifeless garden hanging blocks of suet on strings from the bare oak limbs. The stuff stayed hard in the winter air, and the wild thrushes that would have worms to eat come spring were able to sustain themselves on this butcher shop provender until those sunnier days arrived. He was absently whistling "There'll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover" now as he drove, and he tried to estimate how long those suet blocks would last, before new ones would have to be hung; not all the way until spring, he thought fretfully. But surely whatever happened he would be back long before then.
His restless gaze was jumping from the windscreen to the driving mirrors and back, and with a chill he realized that he was once again, after a hiatus of about seven years, reflexively watching the vehicles around him, and noting sections of the shoulder where he could leave the road if he should have to.
It took Hale nearly half an hour to amble around the margin of Green Park this time, through the mist under the dripping oak and sycamore branches, and when at length he slanted for the second time past the gazebo by Queen's Walk, the old man in the overcoat and homburg hat was still there, still leaning against the rail. Without ever looking directly at the man, Hale passed within fifty yards of him and then strode away across the wet grass toward the benches that lined the north-south path.
His heart was pounding, even as he told himself that the old man was probably just some Whitehall sub-secretary taking a morning break; and when he groped in his pocket for cigarettes and matches, he crumpled the pages of test questions he had thrust there a little less than two hours ago. That was his real world now, the Milton classes and the survey of the Romantic poets, not...the dusty alleys around the embassy in Al-Kuwait, not the black Bedu tents in the dunes of the Hassa desert, not jeeps in the Ahora Gorge below Mount Ararat...he killed the thought. As he shook a cigarette out of the pack and struck a match to it, he blinked in the chilly damp breeze and squinted around at the lawns. The grass in the park was mowed these days, and he doubted that sheep were ever pastured here anymore, as he recalled that they had been right after the war. He puffed the cigarette alight and nodded calmly as he exhaled a plume of smoke.
He had driven no farther into the city this morning than West Kensington and had parked the car in the visitors' lot of Western Hospital across the rail line from the Brompton Cemetery, then conscientiously trudged up a sidewalk against oncoming one-way traffic to the West Brompton tube station.
When he had been uselessly summoned in '52, he had got off the Piccadilly Line at Hyde Park Corner, and before walking away up Knightsbridge he had nervously traced a back-tracking counterclockwise saunter among the splashing galoshes and headlamp beams and drifting snow flurries by the Wellington Arch, frequently peering down at the skirt hems and trouser cuffs of the otherwise interchangeable figures in overcoats and scarves that passed him, and trying to remember the one-man-pace evasion rhythms he had learned in Paris more than a decade earlier.
This morning he had ridden the underground train right past the park and got off at Piccadilly Circus, and climbed the tube station stairs to a gray sky that threatened only rain.
And he had known he should start straightaway down Piccadilly toward the park, being careful once or twice to glance into shop windows he passed and then double back to them after a few paces, as if reconsidering some bit of merchandise, and note peripherally any figure that hesitated behind him, and after a few blocks to enter a shop and stuff his coat into a bag and re-comb his unruly blond hair and then leave with some group of men dressed in white shirts and ties, as he was, and if possible get right onto a bus or into a cab; but he had not been on foot in Piccadilly Circus since the war, and for several minutes after stepping away from the station stairs he had just stood on the pavement in front of Swan & Edgar and stared past the old Eros fountain at the Gordon's gin advertisements and the big Guinness clock on the London Pavilion, which was apparently a cinema now; he remembered when it had been occupied by the Ministry of Food, and housewives had gone in there to learn the uses of the new national flour. And for the first time in years he remembered buying an orange from a Soviet recruiter on the steps of the Eros fountain in the autumn of '41. At last he had stirred himself, though his walk down the wide boulevard, past the columned portico of the old Piccadilly Hotel and then the caviar displays in the windows of Fortnum's, had been slowed more by nostalgia than by watchful "dry-cleaning."
I'll give it an hour, he thought now as he puffed on the cigarette and stared at the top stories of new buildings above the bare tree branches; then an early lunch at Kempinski's if it's still there off Regent Street, and after that the long trip home. To hell with the fallbacks. Forget the backstage world, as you were ordered to. Dulce et decorum est.
But he looked behind him, and for a moment all memory of the busy concerns of these last fourteen years fell away from him like a block of snow falling away from the iron gutters of a hard old house.
Though still far off, the man from the gazebo was walking in his direction at a leisurely pace across the grass, glancing north and south with no appearance of urgency. And the pale face under the hat brim was much older now, wrinkled and hollowed with probably seventy years, but Hale had encountered him at enough points during his life to remember him continuously all the way back-to the summer of 1929, when Hale had been seven years old.
Andrew Hale had grown up in the Cotswold village of Chipping Campden, seventy-five miles northwest of London, in a steep-roofed stone house that he and his mother had shared with her elderly father. Andrew had slept in an ornate old shuttered box bed because at night his mother and grandfather had had to carry their lamps through his room to get to theirs, and on many evenings he would slide the oak shutters closed from outside the bed and then sneak to the head of the stairs to listen to the stilted, formal quarreling of the two adults in the parlor below.
Andrew and his mother had been Roman Catholics, but his grandfather had been a censorious low-church Anglican, and the boy had heard a lot of heated discussions about popes and indulgences and the Virgin Mary, punctuated by thumps when his grandfather would pound his fist on the enormous old family Bible and exclaim, "Show it to me in the Word of God!"-and well before he was seven years old he had gathered that his mother had once been a missionary Catholic nun who had got pregnant in the Middle East and left her order, and had returned to England when her illegitimate son was two years old. The villagers always said that it was penitential Papist fasting that made Andrew's mother so thin and asthmatic and cross, and young Andrew had not ever had any close friends in Chipping Campden. He had known that in the opinion of his neighbors his father had been a corrupt priest of one species or another, but his mother had made it clear to the boy when he was very young that she would not say anything at all about the man.
Andrew's grandfather had restrained himself from debating religion with the boy, but the old man had taken an active hand in Andrew's upbringing. The old man always said that Andrew was too thin-"looks like bloody Percy Perishing Shelley"-and was forever forcing on him health-concoctions like Plasmon concentrated milk protein, which all by itself was supposed to contain every element required to keep body and soul together, and Parrish's Chemical Food, a nasty red syrup that had to be drunk through a straw to avoid blackening the teeth.
Andrew had frequently escaped to hike the couple of miles to the windy Edge-of-the-Wold, the crest of the steep escarpment that marked the western boundary of the Cotswolds, below which on clear days he could see the roofs of Evesham on the plain and the remote glitter of the River Isbourne. In his daydreams his father was a missionary priest, and Andrew tried to imagine where the man might be, and how they might one day meet.
Before retracing his steps across the hills and stubbled fields to the straw-colored stone houses of Chipping Campden he would sometimes follow the old cowpaths south to look, always from a respectful distance, at the Broadway Tower. Actually it was two mottled limestone towers, with a tall narrow castle-keep wedged corner-on between, and the vertical window slits and the high, crenellated turrets gave it a medieval look that had not been dispelled when he'd learned that it had been built as recently as 1800. Years later, when he had gone to do wartime work for the Secret Intelligence Service in London, the SIS headquarters had been in Broadway Buildings off St. James's Park, and known simply as Broadway; and not until his assignment to Berlin in 1945 had the London offices entirely lost for him the storybook associations with this isolated castle on the Edge-of-the-Wold.
The houses and shops along High Street in Chipping Campden were all narrow and crowded up against one another, the rows of pointed rooftops denting the sky like the teeth of a saw. Though when Sunday morning skies were clear Andrew and his mother would take her father's little 10-horsepower Austin to the Catholic church in Stow-on-the-Wold, in threatening weather his mother would give in to her father's demand that they attend the Anglican church in town, and Andrew would hurry along the High Street sidewalk to keep up with the longer strides of his mother and grandfather; the houses weren't set back at all from the sidewalk pavement, so that if Andrew turned his head away from the street, he'd be peering through leaded glass straight into someone's front parlor, and he had always worried that the old man's flailing walking stick would break a window. Andrew had wished he could walk down the middle of the street, or walk entirely away, straight out across the unbounded fields.
On Easter, Andrew and his mother would attend midnight Easter Vigil Mass in Stow-on-the-Wold, and then after they had driven back home, before the little car's motor had cooled off, all three of them would climb into the vehicle and drive to the dawn service at the Anglican church in Fairford. Little Andrew would sit yawning and uneasy through the non-Catholic and therefore heretical service, sometimes peering fearfully at the medieval stained-glass western window, where a huge Satan was depicted devouring unhappy-looking little naked sinners; Satan's body was covered with silver scales, and his round torso was a grimacing, pop-eyed face, but it was the figure's profiled head that howled in the boy's dreams-it was the round-eyed head of a voracious fish, almost imbecilic in its inhuman ferocity.
Many years later he would wonder if he really had, as he seemed to remember, heard in a childhood nightmare a voice call out to this figure, O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?-and then a chorus of the voices of the damned: Return, and we return; keep faith, and so will we...And he would suppose that he might have, if the dream had been on the very last night of some year.
Andrew had formally renounced Satan by proxy and been baptized in the actual Jordan River, according to his mother-"on the Palestine shore, at Allenby Bridge near Jericho," she would occasionally add, very quietly-and when he was seven years old he had taken his first Holy Communion at the church in Stow-on-the-Wold. After the Mass, instead of driving back up to Chipping Campden, his mother had for once driven away from the church heading farther south. Explaining to the boy only that he needed to meet his godfather, she had piloted the little car straight on through Oxford and on, eventually, to the A103 into London. Andrew had sat quietly beside her in his new coat and tie, trying to comprehend the fact that he had just consumed the body and blood of Christ, and wondering why he had never heard of this godfather until this day.
In 1929 the Secret Intelligence Service headquarters was on the top floor and rooftop of a residential building across the street from the War Office, in Whitehall Court. When Andrew and his mother stepped off the lift on the seventh floor, they were in the building's eastern turret; through a narrow window the boy could see some formal gardens in sunlight below, and Hungerford Bridge spanning the broad steely face of the Thames beyond. The lift had smelled of latakia tobacco and hair oil, and the warm air in the turret room was spicy with the vanilla scent of very old paper.