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Authors: Michael Frayn

skios a novel

 

Contents

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Also by Michael Frayn

About the Author

Copyright

 

1

“I just want to say a big thank-you to our distinguished guest,” said Nikki Hook, “for making this evening such a fascinating and wonderful occasion, and one that I’m sure none of us here will ever forget…”

She stopped and read the sentence aloud again to herself, then deleted “fascinating and wonderful” and inserted “unique and special,” which sounded a little bit more—well—unique and special. A little bit more Mrs. Fred Toppler, in fact, which was what counted, because it was after all Mrs. Fred Toppler, not Nikki, who was going to be so grateful, and find it all so extraordinary. Nikki was merely Mrs. Fred Toppler’s PA. She provided the thoughts for Mrs. Toppler to think, but in the end it was Mrs. Toppler who had to think them.

Outside the windows of Nikki’s office the tumbling gardens and hillsides of the Fred Toppler Foundation were vivid in the blaze of the Mediterranean afternoon. Cascades of well-watered bougainvillea and plumbago challenged the saturated blue of the sky. The fishermen’s cottages along the waterfront and the caïques rocking at anchor on the dazzle of the sea were as blinding white and as heavenly blue as the Greek flag stirring lethargically on the flagpole.

Nikki, though, looking out at it all as she composed Mrs. Toppler’s thoughts for her, was as discreetly cool as the air-conditioning. Her discreetly blonded hair was unruffled, her white shirt and blue skirt a discreet echo of the Greek whites and blues outside, her expression pleasantly but discreetly open to the world. She was discreetly British, because Mrs. Toppler, who was American, like the late Mr. Fred, appreciated it. Europeans in general embodied for her the civilized values that the Fred Toppler Foundation existed to promote, and the British were Europeans who had the tact and good sense to speak English. Anyway, everyone liked Nikki, though, not just Mrs. Toppler. She was so nice! She had been a really nice girl already when she was three. She had still been one when she was seventeen, at an age when niceness was a much rarer achievement, and she remained one nearly twenty years later. Discreetly tanned, discreetly blond, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice.

As Nikki watched, people began to emerge from the fishermen’s cottages and drift towards the tables scattered in the shade of the great plane tree on the central square. They were not fishermen; they were not even Greek. They were not tourists or holidaymakers. They were the English-speaking guests of the foundation’s annual Great European House Party. They had spent the day in seminars studying Minoan cooking and early Christian meditation techniques, in classes watching demonstrations of traditional Macedonian dancing and late medieval flower arrangement. They had interspersed their labors with swims and siestas, with civilized conversation over breakfast and midmorning coffee, over prelunch drinks, lunch, and postlunch coffee, over afternoon tea and snacks. Now they were moving towards further spiritual refreshment over dinner and various pre- and postdinner drinks.

Tomorrow evening all this civilization would reach its climax in a champagne reception and formal dinner, at the end of which the guests would be spiritually prepared for the most important event of the House Party, the Fred Toppler Lecture. The lecture was one of the highlights of the Greek cultural calendar. The residents would be joined by important visitors from Athens, ferried out to the island by air and sea. There would be articles in the papers attacking the choice of subject and speaker, and lamenting the sad decline in its quality.

Please God it wasn’t going to be too awful this year, prayed Nikki. All lectures, however unique and special, were of course awful, but some were more awful than others. There had to
be
a lecture. Why? Because there always had been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of. As the director of the foundation had become more eccentric and reclusive, so had his choices of lecturer become more idiosyncratic. The Post-syncretistic Approach to whatever it was the previous year had caused even Mrs. Toppler, who was prepared to thank almost anybody for almost anything, to choke on the task, which was perhaps the unconscious reason she had left the “not” out of this being an occasion they would not forget in a hurry. Nikki had seized the chance of the director’s absence on a retreat in Nepal to choose this year’s lecturer herself.

“Dr. Norman Wilfred needs no introduction,” Mrs. Fred Toppler would be saying tomorrow when she introduced him. Nikki looked at the unneeded introduction that followed, paraphrased from the CV that Dr. Wilfred’s personal assistant had sent her. His list of publications and appointments, of fellowships and awards, was mind-numbing. Lucinda Knowles, Nikki’s counterpart at the J. G. Fledge Institute, had assured her that Dr. Wilfred was both a serious expert in the management of science and a genuine celebrity. Her friend Jane Gee, at the Cartagena Festival, said he was the lecturer everybody currently wanted.

So this year—“Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.” There was something about the word “promise” that made Nikki’s heart suddenly sink. Her choice was going to be just as awful as all the others. Even now he was five miles up in the sky, on his way from London, above Switzerland or northern Italy. She had a clear and discouraging picture of him as he sat there in business class sipping his complimentary champagne. All those committees and international lectures would have taken their toll. His jowls would be heavy with importance, his waistline thick and his hair thin with it. He would have dragged “Innovation and Governance” around the world, from Toronto to Tokyo, from Oslo to Oswego, until the typescript was yellow from the Alpine sun, tear-stained from the tropical rains, and exhausted from repetition.

She printed up the unnecessary introduction and the big thank-you, the solid bookends that bracketed whatever was to come. Too late now to alter what that was going to be. It was coming towards them all at 500 mph.

She looked at her watch. She had just the right amount of time in hand to deliver the texts to Mrs. Toppler and then double-check a few things on her list, before she left for the airport. She stepped out of the door of her office into the great brick wall of late-afternoon heat.

 

2

Why does one do it? thought Dr. Norman Wilfred as he sipped his complimentary business-class champagne and gazed absently down upon the world five miles below. Why
does
one do it?

Round and round the same treadmill one went. Another view like all the others over some unidentifiable part of the earth’s surface five miles beyond one’s grasp. Then another airport, and another waiting car. Another eager assurance that everyone was so excited at the prospect of one’s visit. Another guest room with two towels and a bar of soap laid out on the bed. The Fred Toppler Foundation, it was true, had a reputation in academic circles for treating its visiting lecturers well. He foresaw drinkable wine and comfortable chairs set out in soft sunshine or warm shade. All the same, when he thought of all the performance he would have to go through to earn these small compensations, he felt a familiar weariness in the marrow of his bones.

“Dr. Norman Wilfred?” people would say when introductions were made, and he could already see the way the expressions on their faces would change. He could feel the way he would smile and incline his head slightly in return. Once again he would bring out the topics he kept ready for the obligatory mingling with his fellow guests. Once again he would lay out his little stock of unusual knowledge, original thoughts, and interesting opinions. He would offer the scraps of gossip he had brought. He would tell the tried and tested stories.

And then the lecture itself. The faces raised expectantly towards him. The fulsome introduction with the record of his career paraphrased from the CV that Vicki had sent them and edited down to manageable length by omitting, always, the most important publications and appointments. His head modestly lowered as he listened to it all once again, revealing the way the years were beginning to extend his high forehead up over the top of his head.

The applause as he goes to the lectern and opens the text of his lecture …

His lecture! Had he got it? He felt in his flight bag once again, just to be sure. Yes, there it reassuringly was. He always kept the text of his lecture with him on his travels. He and his luggage had become separated too often over the years for him to take any risks. Toothbrushes and pajamas could be replaced; the lecture was part of himself, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. He took it out of the bag, just to be doubly sure. The same scuffed old brown binder that had traveled so many thousands of weary air miles with him, personalized by the red wine stain it had acquired in Melbourne, the smeared remains of some small tropical insect in Singapore. He would add a few introductory remarks, as he usually did, to make clear the special relevance of the lecture to this particular time and place, but the body of the text was the material that had slowly taken its present form, like his scalp, over many years. A whole lifetime of thought and study was concentrated in these pages, its expression gradually refined and adapted, like all human knowledge, to current circumstances. The carefully crafted phrases were as familiar and reassuring as the wine stain and the dead insect. “Perhaps foremost among the challenges facing us today … The hopes and fears of mankind … Within an overall framework of social responsibility…”

He saw the words as they would look up at him from the warm pool of light on the lectern, like well-behaved children at their fond father. “These problems must be squarely faced … And here a note of caution must be sounded…” He heard the accomplished but still apparently spontaneous delivery. The little extempore variants and asides. The laughter. The reasonably prolonged applause at the end. The words of appreciation from his host—“thought-provoking, insightful, fascinating”—not all of them perhaps entirely insincere …

Why did one go on doing it, though? When one could be sitting in one’s office at the institute and doing real scholarly work. Struggling to understand the latest research by younger rivals who had invented some incomprehensible new vocabulary of their own, or to master the institute’s draft accounts before the next meeting of the committee of management, or to sort out the muddle into which the manuscript of one’s new book seemed to have descended.

And instead, here one was again, five miles up, glass of champagne in hand. Why, why, why?

It was true that there was also some satisfaction to be derived from being Dr. Norman Wilfred. Purely as a consequence of his being who he was, seriously worded documents drafted by the labor of others were placed in front of him to be signed. His advice and his skills as a chairman did not go unappreciated. As soon as people heard the name they knew exactly what they were going to get. They were never disappointed. Dr. Norman Wilfred was what they expected, and Dr. Norman Wilfred was what they got.

And if there were benefits in being Dr. Norman Wilfred, he thought, as the cabin attendant refilled his glass, then God knew he had earned them. He had arrived at being who he was only slowly and with sustained application, thought by thought, opinion by opinion, appointment by appointment. There had been many letdowns along the way; many failures, rebuffs, and slights; many mornings when he had looked in the shaving mirror and seen someone he didn’t much like the look of gazing back at him. He had his problems even now. His blood pressure had to be kept under control. He had developed a serious allergy to onions. He suffered perhaps from a slight tendency to take himself too seriously.

Also from this apparently incurable propensity to find himself on planes with a glass of champagne in his hand, and the prospect of yet more debilitating comfort and flattery in front of him.

 

3

Nikki walked slowly through the green territory of the foundation, up and down the winding hilly paths, looking out at the bay and the piled summer clouds. The light was softening as the afternoon slipped into evening. There was a suggestion of gold in the air.

She loved this place. Everything was so at ease with itself, so delicately balanced, like the works of a good watch, or nature itself. The web of pipes and sprinklers that kept everything so green was discreetly concealed. So was the flow of money that kept the sprinklers sprinkling. It was a complete world, a miniature model of the European civilization that it existed to promote, and she could almost feel it sitting in the palm of her hand, its clockwork quietly humming. The only piece of the machinery that stuck a little, that threw the whole clock slightly out of true, was the bit that was concealed behind the closed shutters of Empedocles, the villa high above all the others, where the emaciated and failing director was hidden away. Though perhaps for not much longer …

From the fishermanless fishermen’s cottages along the waterfront, and from suites in villas hidden among the trees all over the headland that the foundation occupied, from Leucippus and Anaximander, from Xenocles, Theodectes, Menander, Aristophanes, and Antiphanes, more and more of the House Party guests were emerging, looking for food and drink. Two hours or more had gone by since they had last been fed and watered.

She imagined that she was seeing it all for the first time, as Dr. Wilfred would shortly be seeing it. How would he feel it compared with all the other foundations and institutes that he had spoken at around the world? She imagined him at her side, looking and listening appreciatively as she explained it all to him. He might be a more sympathetic person than she had supposed as she transcribed his CV. He
was,
she could feel it. He was someone you could talk to.

“Most of our guests are from the States,” she found she was telling him, her words as inaudible to anyone else as he was invisible. “All horribly rich, of course, or they wouldn’t be here. But awfully nice people, or they wouldn’t be interested in the kind of things we do here.”

She waved to an elderly couple with apple-cheeked smiles. “Hi, there!” she called. “Oh, Nikki, honey,” called the woman, “we’re having the best time! All thanks to you, of course! And we know you’ve got a treat in store for us tomorrow!”

“Mr. and Mrs. Chuck Friendly,” murmured Nikki to the disembodied treat, walking beside her. “I understand they’re the second-richest couple in the state of Rhode Island. They’ve been coming to Skios every year since the House Party started. Sweet! Most of the guests are couples, others are hoping to be, so watch out!”

Two men were strolling thoughtfully together in the shade cast by the Temple of Athena. One of them took the pipe out of his mouth and raised it to her like a glass of wine, the other salaamed.

“Alf Persson,” she explained to Dr. Wilfred, “the Swedish theologian. Quite well known, I believe, in the theological world. And V. J. D. Chaudhury, the great authority on comparative underdevelopment. Two of our embedded intellectuals! You’re not the only distinguished visitor, you see!”

They crossed the ancient agora, where men were unloading caterer’s tables, gilt chairs, carpets, and bales of linen from electric trucks. “That stone floor is three thousand years old,” she reminded the foreman. “You will make sure the carpets are down before anything metal touches it?”

To Dr. Wilfred she added modestly, “My Greek is still a bit rudimentary, even after five years here … Oh, and this is another of our embedded intellectuals.” She waved to a young man who was gazing gloomily out of the window of Epictetus. “A Brit, this one, like me. Chris Binns, writer in residence … Chris, will you do me a favor? Tomorrow, when we get to questions at the end, and no one wants to be the first, we don’t want one of those terrible silences, like last year. So will you have a question ready?”

“A question?” said Chris Binns. It seemed to be a word he hadn’t come across before.

“Anything,” said Nikki. “About his work. Prospects for international control. Whatever. You’ll dream something up. You’re a writer. Just to get the ball rolling … At the lecture. You
are
coming to the lecture tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said Chris. “Of course. Absolutely.”

“He’s so wrapped up in his work!” whispered Nikki to Dr. Wilfred, as they continued on their way. “He didn’t know there
was
a lecture tomorrow!”

“Perhaps it’s the sight of
you
that makes everything go out of his head,” she imagined Dr. Wilfred saying. She laughed. “Now, now!” she said. He really was more charming than she had supposed. And he had got a good deal younger and slimmer.

“Jesus, Nikki,” said an elderly lady, dabbing a little eau-de-cologne-soaked lace handkerchief to her brow as they passed her near the Aphrodite fountain, “you always look like something out of a deodorant ad. I don’t know how you do it.”

“I think cool thoughts, Mrs. Comax,” said Nikki.

Her cool thoughts were that she herself was as discreetly necessary to the workings of the foundation as the water in the buried pipes and the mysterious flow of funds through the balance sheet. She didn’t like to say this to Dr. Wilfred, but probably he could see it for himself. Particularly when she took him on a slight diversion backstage. Screened by dense shrubs was a world not of traditional stone cottages or villas with the names of philosophers and poets, but of prefabricated sheds with no designation at all.

“This is where the staff live,” she explained. “Will you wait here a moment? I’ve just got to put my head into the kitchens.”


Now
what?” shouted Yannis Voskopoulos, the
chef de cuisine
, over the clatter of stainless steel on stainless steel and the roar of the air extractors, and the endlessly Levantine pop wailing of the woman on the radio. “I don’t know what you gonna tell me but you told me already! Twice! And we done it! Twice over!”

Some of the white-robed ghosts looked up from ovens and worktops and waved amiable ladles and cleavers at her. Some looked up and didn’t recognize her.

“But these new guys, Yannis,” she said, not in Greek but in American English, because Yannis had worked in America and liked to keep the language up. “The agency guys. You’ve got your eye on them?”

“Got my eye on everyone, Nikki. Everyone and everything. The same like you.”

“Last year you forgot kosher.”

“Nikki, you wanna see kosher? Look—kosher. Halal. Diabetic. Vegetarian. Gluten-free, nut-free, salt-free. Vegetarian kosher. Diabetic halal. Gluten-free diabetic. Salt-free nut-free vegetarian. Get outta here, Nikki!”

“And onion-free?”


Onion
-free?”

“Salt-free onion-free! For the guest speaker! I told you!”

Yannis looked at the ceiling, then wiped his face on the oven cloth he was carrying. He sighed.

“When I was a kid in Piraeus,” he said, “was only two sorts of food. Was food, and was no food.”

“You see why I check everything?” said Nikki.

She rejoined the imaginary Dr. Wilfred and walked on with him towards Parmenides, the quietly luxurious guest quarters where he would be staying. He was already impressed, she could see, as they climbed the hillside towards it. When they got inside and she opened the shutters to let in the great sweep of bay below, the piled cumulus above the horizon, and the rocking caïques along the waterfront, she thought she could hear him catch his breath. Just as well he was seeing it now—it would probably be dark by the time he actually arrived.

She checked the air-conditioning, topped up the water in the vases of yellow lilies and white roses, and put a recirculating disc on the CD player. A quiet murmur of plainsong softened the air.

“The monks of the local monastery,” she explained.

She took the whisky out of the sideboard and put it by the tumblers on top. “A rather rare straight malt,” she said. “Is that all right?”

She went into the bedroom, turned down the cover, and laid out the white bathrobe and slippers, as richly fluffy as the hide of a subtropical polar bear. Moved on to the study: stationery on the desk, yes, directory of services, history of the foundation. The kitchen: champagne in the refrigerator, together with two flutes, a good local white wine, and two liters of chilled water.

“From the foundation’s own spring,” she told him. “It’s famously pure.”

She took grapes out of the refrigerator and a bowl from the sideboard to arrange them in. “Thrown in the foundation’s pottery room,” she explained. “It shows that bit in Homer when Odysseus landed on Skios disguised as an itinerant knife grinder.”

She took a last look round before she left … The lilies … Oh my God! Better double-check that too …

She touched “Vicki” on her phone. She’d had the number stored for the last six months.

“Vicki…? It’s me yet again, I’m afraid—Nikki. So sorry … PA to PA—the well-worn back channel once more! He’s on the plane…? Yes, well, I think we’re all ready for him, only I had a last-minute panic … Lilies! I’ve put lilies in his room! And I’ve just thought, Wait a minute, if he’s allergic to onions…! Onions—bulbs … Bulbs—lilies…! No? Oh, wonderful … Bless you … So sorry to bother you. We’re all so excited!”

Far too excited in her case, she thought as she put the phone back in her bag. Dr. Wilfred had suddenly slipped back to being the overweight, self-important figure she had originally expected. Though you never knew. He was only sixteen years older than she was, after all, according to his CV. She remembered a discreet but lyrical episode three years before with “The Challenge of Post-Modernist Topology.” The laughter in the warm darkness—his lips coming close to hers—the softly invading hands … So there were surprises in life. She also remembered driving him back to the airport the following morning to return to his wife …

There was nothing in Dr. Wilfred’s CV, so far as she could remember, about being married. Not that she herself had any ambitions in that direction. She loved it here, she loved her work. All the same …

All the same, it was time to go to the airport.

 

4

The ping of the seatbelt sign coming on and the feel of the empty champagne glass being taken out of his hand woke Dr. Wilfred from the doze he didn’t realize that he’d fallen into. He looked out of the window. There was a scattering of small rocky islands in the sea below, and then the coastline of another, with buildings, streets, and the first lights coming on here and there as the day faded. Skios.

For no identifiable reason his spirits rose. This time it would be different. New dishes, new wines, new weather. Views over the sea not quite like the views he had seen before, fellow guests not quite like any other fellow guests. A woman would come up to him after his lecture. Lightly tanned, slim, smiling. An American, from a rather well-known university. With tenure already. No, without tenure yet—someone who would be prepared, if she met the right companion, to reshape her life, to change universities and continents. It was seven years now since he had last been in that kind of relationship.

“Dr. Wilfred,” she would say. He would smile and incline his head. “I found your lecture fascinating. It raises so many issues that I’d love to pursue with you. I don’t know whether you have a moment…?”

It might happen even sooner. The woman who would be looking after him, and who would be meeting him just the other side of customs and immigration. “Dr. Wilfred? We’re all so excited!” Vicki had exchanged many e-mails and phone calls with her already. And she was professionally and personally committed to seeing that he had a good time. She would be lightly tanned. Discreetly blond, perhaps. In her thirties …

He checked the right-hand inside pocket of his linen jacket. Passport, credit cards. He checked the left-hand pocket. Phone, three condoms.

You never knew. All you knew was that it was either stored in the long causal chain of the universe or it wasn’t. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen.

*   *   *

Nikki tapped on the sliding glass window of the lodge. Elli waved at her. She was busy smiling her wonderful dark Greek smile into her headset, which seemed far too skimpy to accommodate it. Nikki knew what she was saying, in English smoothed and streamlined by so many repetitions over the years: “Fred Toppler Foundation. How my dreck your call?” She was the voice with which the foundation spoke to the outside world, the finger that pressed the buzzer to open and close the barrier keeping the confusion and shabbiness of that world at bay, the hand that sorted the incoming mail. She also looked after all the keys. Which was why Nikki was waiting.

Now Elli was frowning her wonderful dark Greek frown. The unseen caller’s answer to her perfectly formed English question was evidently also in English, which she couldn’t always understand.

Nikki waited. She had time in hand. Of course—she always had, in spite of having so much to do. She thought another of her cool thoughts. This particular cool thought was a recurring one: that quite shortly now the director would be out of Empedocles and on a plane back to his native Wuppertal. She knew it from the way Mrs. Toppler pronounced his name these days.

So the post of director would be vacant. The appointment would have to go before the board of trustees, of course, but what could the board of trustees do except what the money told them to? The money was Mrs. Fred Toppler. And, of course, her friend Mr. Vassilis Papadopoulou, who had been such a patron and benefactor of the foundation. In Athens Mr. Papadopoulou made ministers and broke them. No one in Greece who had any hopes of remaining alive and well would want to put obstacles in the way of a candidate supported by Papadopoulou. And there was a candidate to hand whom he might just possibly favor. Someone who over the past five years had gradually made herself indispensable to both Mrs. Toppler and Mr. Papadopoulou. “Oh, that Nikki!” as Mrs. Toppler so often had cause to say. “Whatever should we do without her?”

And now this year she had organized the entire House Party. She had chosen the Fred Toppler lecturer. Mr. Papadopoulou would be present at the lecture himself, and he had invited a number of his business associates. Last year Mr. Papadopoulou and several of his guests had fallen asleep in the lecture. If this year they managed to remain awake …

Well, you never knew in life. You never knew.

Elli slid back the glass and held out a car key.

“Nikki, you should be late! The plane comes in half an hour!”

“It’s ten minutes behind time. I checked.”

“Oh, yes, you check,” said Elli. “Of course.”

“Everything,” said Nikki, smiling her nice open smile. “Always.”

She walked unhurriedly towards the brilliant wall of bougainvillea that concealed the car park, still thinking her cool thought.

Elli watched her go, thinking a cool thought of her own: if Nikki becomes director, Mrs. Fred Toppler will be looking for a new PA …

 

5

Dr. Wilfred had established himself in the prime position by the carousel, identified through long experience, and granted by right of being in business class and so among the first off the plane: hard up against the track, close to the point where the tide of tumbled black wheelie-bags would at any moment burst through the doors, but just far enough away to get a good sight of them approaching before they reached him. His own was easy to spot, because its red leather address tag made it stand out from the sea of black all around; the fruit of experience once again. Which reminded him of his flight bag, and the lecture inside it. He checked. Yes, wedged safely between his feet, where he could feel it while he turned his phone on and found out what tedious demands upon him had accumulated while he was airborne.

Five e-mails and seven texts. Would he consider…? No, he would not. Would he address a conference …—No…!—in Hawaii? Oh God, Hawaii again. Well, possibly. Would he write, join, read, judge…? No … yes … maybe … Nothing that Vicki couldn’t deal with. Except one e-mail from Vicki herself. Did he wish to respond to the attached? It turned out to be a review of his life’s work from some publication he had never heard of in Manitoba, and it was entirely ridiculous. The author was disabled by stupidity and ignorance, motivated by spite, and didn’t understand what “disinterested” meant. It was not something he would dream of responding to.

He was about to put the phone back in his pocket when one particular phrase in the article suddenly came back into his mind: “Dr. Wilfred’s entirely mystical faith in reason.” He switched the phone on again. His thumbs began to move, almost of their own accord. “I should not normally accord uninformed abuse of this nature the dignity of a reply,” he typed, “but…” His thumbs flew back and forth over the keyboard like eager pigeons snapping up seed. His response was effortlessly authoritative, pleasantly amused, and totally devastating.

Even in the crowded baggage hall of a strange airport he was a master of his craft.

*   *   *

Nikki Hook felt the back of her shirt, to make sure that it was still tucked into her skirt, then touched her hair to check that it had not been blown out of place by the air-conditioning in the car. She could see the passengers through the glass screen as they emerged from passport control and crowded around the carousel like impatient pigs round an empty trough. There were twenty or so other people on either side of her, holding clipboards and lists, also waiting. Chauffeurs, drivers of taxis and limousines, representatives of tour operators. Some of the women from the tour companies were tanned and blond, but none of them was as lightly tanned or as discreetly blond as Nikki, and even the ones in their thirties, like her, were not as tastefully ensconced in them as she was. All these people, young and old, had their own opinions and memories, their own secret weaknesses and choice of underwear. In their own eyes, in the eyes of boyfriends, wives, children, and grandchildren, of employers and fellow employees, they were all no doubt whoever they were. But only Nikki Hook, she couldn’t help being aware at the back of her mind, was Nikki Hook.

This was always a slightly tense moment, though. She imagined an actress standing in the wings waiting for her entrance on a first night. Not the star of the show, perhaps, but that long moment of waiting for her cue, of checking yet again that she remembered her first line, was just as long for her as it was for the star. And it wasn’t possible to run through all the rest of her part. She couldn’t know how the volatile combination of her and her fellow actors, of text and set, of audience and circumstance, was going to turn out.

No doubt each of the visiting lecturers she had met year by year felt something similar. But then it wasn’t their responsibility to charm and flatter
her
—it was hers to charm and flatter
them
. Some of them could absorb amazing amounts of charm and flattery—and still not show the benefit.

On the other side of the glass a klaxon sounded. The carousel began to turn. A series of irregular black shapes shouldered their way through the flaps from the outside world, like swaggering cowboys through the doors of a saloon. The passengers pressed impatiently forward to greet them.

All around Nikki the waiting drivers and tour operators lifted up little placards. “Merryweather,” said the signs expectantly, some handwritten, some printed. “Horizon Holidays … Johanssen …
 … Sand and Sun … Purefoy … Silver Beach Hotel…”

Nikki lifted hers. “D
R.
N
ORMAN
W
ILFRED
,” it said in neat, clear capitals. She softened the set of her mouth, relaxed the skin around her pleasantly open eyes, and became a couple of years younger.

 

6

Why, though? Oliver Fox asked himself. Why do I do this kind of thing?

His tumbled dishmop of hair was as blond as blanched almonds, his soft eyes as brown and shining as dates. His thoughts, though, were as black as the tumbled black wheelie-bags coming towards him along the carousel. Why? he thought as his eyes jumped from one to the next. Why, why, why? It had seemed so natural to start with. So inevitable, even. But now, with the black bags filing past him like mourners in a funeral procession, he could see that it was going to turn out as badly as all the other adventures he had launched upon so lightly.

Georgie, this one was called. And he scarcely knew her! He’d only ever met her once! And now here he was, on his way to spend a week with her in a villa he’d borrowed from some people he knew even less. Why
did
he do it?

He’d watched her across the bar for some time, it’s true, over the shoulder of a man he was having a drink with, before he’d introduced himself. He’d also subsequently spent many hours on rather complex detective work to find out who she was and where she lived, on flurries of increasingly frequent messages and phone calls, and on many changes of plan—because
her
plans depended upon the plans of someone called Patrick, and Patrick’s plans on the plans of the three colleagues from the trading floor he was going yachting with. Now here Oliver was, watching the bags plodding round the carousel, and there Georgie was, waiting for him on the other side of customs, if the plane had arrived on time from wherever it was where she had been seeing Patrick safely out of the way on his yacht. They were going to have to talk to each other for some of the time, and there wouldn’t be anything to talk about. They were going to have to share a bathroom and a lavatory. She was going to find out that he wasn’t as charming as he had seemed for that brief moment in the bar.

So why had he done it? Because he couldn’t help it! It was just another sudden bit of being Oliver Fox. And being Oliver Fox was destroying his life.

As soon as he had seen that the man she was with (Patrick, of course, as he later discovered) was outside on the street, smoking and talking on his phone, and that she was on her own for the length of a cigarette, he had known what he had to do—what he had been born to do—what he was obliged by the laws of God and man to do—what he was
going
to do. It was stretching out before him as frightening and irresistible as the tightrope before the tightrope walker. Suddenly, once again, the world had darkened, and there was only the narrow spotlit wire above the abyss, the unstable narrow line that had to be walked. And already there he was, just as he had known all his life he would be, sliding his first foot over the dark depths of failure and humiliation, not looking down, his shining eyes fixed on some dim goal he could scarcely see. Already he was slipping into the empty chair beside her …

She was almost as irresistible close up as she had been across the bar, though rather older than he had supposed. But this wasn’t really the point. The point was that the chair beside her was empty, and he had probably only three or four minutes at most before her companion came back to claim it.

What had he said to her? He couldn’t remember. All he could remember was how she had responded. She hadn’t laughed, or ignored him, or told him to get lost. “You’re Oliver Fox,” she’d said.

He had been unable in all honesty to deny it. This was the trouble. He was Oliver Fox. In the kind of circles he moved in, everyone had heard of him even before they met him. Friends of friends—even complete strangers, sometimes—started laughing as soon as they were introduced, waiting for him to be Oliver Fox in front of them. He had tousled blond hair, and soft smiling eyes that fixed on yours, and no one ever had any idea what he was going to do next. Least of all himself. Until suddenly he’d found that something had come into his head, and there he was, doing it already. Whereupon they’d laugh again. Or scream and run for cover, or phone the police.

“Oh,
no
!” the people he’d met would tend to cry. “This time he’s really gone too far!”

In the baggage hall here, of course, surrounded by fat holidaymakers who had never heard of him, there was no one but himself to be Oliver Fox for. He felt as if he were like the aircraft he had been sitting on for the past five hours, suspended over the void by his own bootstraps, with nothing in his head but the long boring swoosh of nothingness.

So why was he like this? Why wasn’t he doing a job of work like a normal human being? Something where you helped people. On a run-down council estate somewhere. In the third world. There were tens of millions of people in the world out there who needed help. He was too old to go on the way he was. He would change. He would put himself humbly at their service. Train as a doctor, perhaps. Specialize. Become a neurologist. He had always wanted to know how his brain worked, why and how he did what he did. He wasn’t a fool, though—he knew how many years of study and hard work it would take. But he could still do it. He
would
do it. He would have applied for medical school this very moment, if only he could have found an application form.

Everyone would be astonished. “Oliver Fox?” they’d laugh. “A neurologist? We certainly weren’t expecting
that
! How absolutely typical!”

On and on the mournful bags processed. Oliver’s eye was caught by the sight of the man beside him, who had his phone in his hand and with his two thumbs was writing a text as long as a doctoral thesis. It reminded him to get his own phone out and switch it back on. Not that there would be any good news.

And no, there wasn’t. The first of the waiting messages was from A. A was Annuka, Annuka Vos, with whom he had borrowed the villa, and who should have been standing here beside him at the carousel if she had not flown into a rage at his coming home with a donkey he had bought off the donkey man in the park, or rather at his proposing to stable it in her flat, whereupon she had found herself abruptly unable to put up a moment longer with his being Oliver Fox, and he had been forced to leave, with nothing but the donkey and a handful of possessions, mostly his, in one of her rather elegant suitcases.