Page 5

 Tim Powers

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"Oh, heh, yes. Well-no trouble, sir, it's just that I want to-" Peripherally he saw the warden still staring at him. "It occurred to me that I don't have all my personal records in my possession here at the school; you know, medical records, birth certificate..."
"You want to enlist, you bloody little fool, don't you? No, put it out of your mind. The Crown will call for you in good season, and it's not for you to...volunteer your own suggestions, your invaluable suggestions. Your mother once said that you owe obedience, do you recall that? 'On our rolls' cuts both ways. We also serve who only stand and wait, boy."
Again Andrew was holding a dead telephone receiver. "Thank you, sir," he told the warden as he set it back down on the table.
That had been on a Friday in early October of 1940. After his last class he had skipped dinner, packed a bag, and hiked to the railway station in town, determined to catch a train to London or to whatever station-Battersea? Wimbledon ?-might be as close to the city as the railway line extended these days. He would tell the RAF recruiters that he was a London resident, which had been true until only a year ago, and that his birth certificate had been burned up in the bombing. They would surely take him-he had read that they were in desperate need of air crews.
But as he pushed open the heavy glass-paneled doors of the Haslemere railway station lobby, a moustached man in a tweed cap and heavy coat had stood up from a bench, smiling at him, and walked across the tiled floor to hook his strong left arm around Andrew's shoulders.
"Andrew Hale," the man had said fondly as he forced him to walk toward a row of empty benches at the far end of the lobby, "what have I got here?" His right hand was inside his coat, and Andrew saw the silvery point of a knife blade appear from behind the lapel and then withdraw. "Rhetorical question, lad. You're on the strength, you know, on the rolls; and you were given an order, is what that was, today. Do you know what the penalty is for disobeying orders during wartime?"
Andrew was sure he had not yet irretrievably disobeyed the order; he was still in Haslemere. But he couldn't help glancing into the man's eyes, and the utter, almost vacant remoteness of the returned gaze was so at odds with the man's affected cheer that Andrew felt diminished and sick. In the months to come, on crisp sunny days in the rural Surrey winter, he would sometimes doubt it; but on this gold-lit late autumn evening he had been convinced that the terrible finality of his own death was as casually possible, and could be achieved as indifferently, as the lighting of a cigarette or the clearing of a throat.
"I-hadn't realized," he said hoarsely, not looking at the man and trying to lob the words out into the lobby, as if they weren't addressed specifically to him. "I won't do it again."
"You'll do what you're told?" The voice was jovial.
"Yes," Andrew whispered.
"Then happily no exertions are called for. I've got a car in the yard-I'll drive you back to your school. Come along."
"No. Please." Andrew's forehead was sweaty, and his mouth was full of salty saliva. "Let me walk back." How could the man imagine that Andrew would willingly sit in a car with him, or prolong this intolerable proximity for one moment more than he had to?
The man-the agent? the domestic assassin?-shrugged and strode away, and Andrew left the station and trudged back to the college. Generally he only suffered what he thought of as his "Arabian Nightmares" in the week after Christmas, but that night in a dream he was suspended over a moonlit ocean, watching, or perhaps even propelling, horizontal beams of light that moved across the dark face of the waters like spokes of a vast turning wheel; and when he convulsed awake before dawn, clammy with sweat, he was muttering feverishly in a language he did not understand. He had not been able to get back to sleep, and he'd kept remembering the voice, eleven years earlier, of the man who had turned out to be Theodora: Herod is no longer in the service of the Raj-and he's doing any harrying of Nazrani children in Jidda nowadays, for an Arab king.
Hale was glad he would not be telling his dreams to the Theodora person any time soon, and he did not try again to enlist.
We also serve who only stand and wait.
In November he successfully sat for an exhibition scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, and in the spring of 1941 he went up to that college to read English literature.
His allowance from Drummond's Bank in Admiralty Arch was not big enough for him to do any of the high living for which Oxford was legendary, but wartime rationing appeared to have cut down on that kind of thing in any case-even cigarettes and beer were too costly for most of the students in Hale's college, and it was fortunate that the one-way lanes of Oxford were too narrow for comfortable driving and parking, since bicycles were the only vehicles most students could afford to maintain. His time was spent mostly in the Bodleian Library researching Spenser and Malory, and defending his resultant essays in weekly sessions with his merciless tutor.
A couple of his friends from the City of London School had also come to Oxford colleges, and the three of them would sometimes go pub-hopping up and down Broad Street in the shadow of the old Sheldonian Theatre dome; and Hale eventually even followed their example and joined a student wing of the Communist Party, more in the hope of meeting girls at meetings and getting free refreshments than from any real ideological sympathy.
Before the war, attendance at chapel had apparently been compulsory in Magdalen, except to such students as cared to arise early and report to the Dean to have their names entered in the roll-call; now it was optional, and it seemed that everybody chose to sleep in and skip chapel. Andrew had stopped going to church during the period of evacuation to Haslemere, or perhaps a little before that, and lately on school forms he had begun writing AGN, for agnostic, when his religious denomination was asked for, rather than RC for Roman Catholic. At least from a distance, communism had seemed to offer a realistic, contemporary and even geographical alternative, in dealing with the vague yet nagging sense of spiritual duty, to the remembered devotions and gospel texts and rosaries; and in any case international "solidarity" seemed to be the only pragmatic hope for defeating Nazi Germany.
Remembering the cold man in the Haslemere train station, he had first taken the precaution of writing to the London post office box and asking Theodora if there was any objection to his joining the Party; but he'd had no reply, and decided qui tacit consentit.
In fact the Party meetings were dull, uninspiring affairs, full of earnest speeches about Marx and Stalin and five-year-plans, with occasional films of laboring iron foundries and farm machinery; Hale was entranced with the Dublin accent of one Iris Murdoch, but she was an elegant twenty-two-year-old Somerville student, and he couldn't imagine suggesting to her that she come out for tea with him sometime. By the end of the first term he had pretty much stopped attending meetings, and so he was surprised to get an invitation through the post from a girl at St. Hilda's College, asking him to join her at a big meeting in the London Party headquarters in King Street on a Friday night in September.
He didn't even consider refusing; and on the appointed evening he was able to get a train to the underground station in St. John's Wood, and he alighted at Covent Garden at dusk and walked to King Street. Though German armies had now swept through the Balkans and Greece and were presently threatening Africa, the London bombings had finally stopped in May. Even shops with their front walls and windows blown out had BUSINESS AS USUAL banners strung across the ragged gaps, and cheerful brassy Glenn Miller songs echoed from radio speakers out into the streets; but after dark, taxis still drove with their headlamps out and were hailed by pedestrians blinking electric torches at them. Hale managed to share a taxi with an elderly gentleman going to the Garrick Club, and when Hale asked to be let off at Number 16 King Street the driver embarrassed him by saying, as the cab slowed in front of the dark office block, "Communist Party Headquarters, sir."
"Thank you," Hale mumbled, wincing under the clubman's peripherally glimpsed glare as he counted out shillings in the spotlight of the driver's cigarette lighter. He did recall that the St. Hilda's girl had been pretty.
Six or eight people were standing on the pavement in front of the tall entry arch, and as Hale stepped away from the departing cab and blinked around, trying to get back his night vision, a figure approached him out of the darkness and a man's Cockney voice said, "And are you a Party member as well, sir?"
"That's right," Andrew told him. "Student branch in Oxford. I'm here for the meeting. I'm to meet a young lady."
"Ah-well, I'm afraid our jail cells are segregated by gender, sir. Perhaps you'll be able to write her a letter, if the censors have no objections."
Belatedly Hale noticed the shape of a City police helmet, and his ribs tingled and his face went cold several seconds before he realized that he was frightened-if only he had answered, Certainly not, isn't this Garrick's? a mere twenty seconds ago!
"It's not...against the law to belong to the Party," he said, trying to speak in a reasonable tone. Three months earlier Germany had finally invaded Russia, violating their non-aggression pact and making the Soviet Union at least nominally a British ally.
"Espionage and subversion still are, sir, very much so. There's a document on our air strategy that's been lifted from the Air Ministry's files. Our men are inside, trying to stop you lot from incinerating papers." Hale now saw that a dark van was parked farther up the street, with a dimly visible blur of smoke fluttering at the exhaust. "I'll have to ask you to come with me," the policeman said, taking Hale's elbow.
At last Hale realized what it was that he was afraid of: not the police, not jail, nor even possible expulsion from Magdalen College, but the man in the Haslemere railway station, or another of his sort, one Hale wouldn't even recognize. Being here tonight suddenly looked a lot like disobeying orders during wartime.
With a despairing moan, Hale yanked his arm free of the policeman's grip and began running back the way his taxi had come, panting more from panic than from exertion as the hard soles of his shoes skidded noisily on the unseen pavement. Suddenly there were torch beams and tall-helmeted silhouettes everywhere in the darkness-what were City police doing out here in Covent Garden?-and after sprinting and dodging for two hundred yards, Hale was cornered on the moonlit steps of the little St. Paul 's church in the Piazza. He held up his hands palms-outward against the dazzling yellow lights until the pursuing figures had cautiously shuffled close enough to seize his arms and twist him around and yank down the shoulders of his jacket; he heard a seam rip, and the autumn evening breeze was chilly through his sweat-soaked dress shirt.
The policeman who had grabbed him down the street came puffing up as others were snapping manacles onto Hale's wrists and rifling his pockets. "If your name," the man wheezed angrily, "isn't-bloody Hale, I'm going to thrash you-right here on the church steps."
"The name's-in my notecase," panted Hale. He could hear the van accelerating in reverse, audibly weaving in the lane as it came fast the wrong way up King Street in the dark. Had there been nobody else to arrest? "Andrew Hale."
Makes you wonder why we still bother.
Hale had started to slant his stride to the right, away from the direction Theodora was taking across the wet grass of Green Park, and after a moment he realized that this was the old training kicking in; the plot here said that he had given an elderly stranger advice to do with the map, and that the two of them didn't know each other, weren't together. Hale squinted to the right, as if considering walking west toward Hyde Park Corner tube station, but dutifully kept the figure of the old man clearly in his peripheral vision.
Now Theodora reached up with his gnarled left hand and took off the black homburg. Even out of the corner of his eye Hale could see the spotty bald scalp and the neatly styled white hair, so different from the black locks he remembered seeing as a boy; and he nearly didn't notice the signal-the old man had whirled the hat on one finger before flipping it back onto his head. Get in the car, that move meant.
"Not so fast," Hale whispered through clenched teeth. These were real enemy-territory contact procedures, and for the first time in many years he was experiencing the old anxiety that was somehow more immediate than fear of capture-don't slip up, don't let down the side.
Beyond the beech trunks ahead, he could see vehicles driving east down the lanes of Constitution Hill, all their colors drab on this gray day. Keep your pace steady, he told himself. Don't try to help. They'll have got this timed.
This? he wondered helplessly. What, did Khrushchev only pretend to back down from Kennedy's ultimatum about the Cuban missiles two months ago, have all the legal Soviet and Sov Bloc residencies disappeared from their embassies at once, gone covert and illegal, is war the next card to be dealt? But why are we miming? Or has there been some sort of in-house coup at SIS, so that old peripheral agents are being reactivated and concealed from the present victors? Am I in a faction here?
When he passed the bordering trees and stepped off the grass onto the pavement, the old man was an anonymous figure twenty yards away to his left, and Hale just hoped no more signals were being given. When Hale paused at the curb-even as he shrilly wondered, What car?-a blue Peugeot sedan came grinding up to rock to a halt right in front of him. The passenger-side door was levered open from inside, and he bent over and climbed in; and the car had pulled away from the curb even before he had yanked the door closed.
The driver was a thin woman with iron-gray hair, and he thought he recognized her chin-up profile from the fourth-floor offices at Broadway during the war. He knew better than to ask.