This man was a nonentity, yes, a nichtozhestvo, but nonentities talked more than entities; what he said in the kitchen (probably scullery) would be transmitted very quickly to the office of the Direktor. A sort of copper sniffing after smuggled fags. Chewing-gum too, perhaps. A thug in a cheap suit, the right jacket-pocket weighted down, rotated his jaws as he said to Hillier, with little deference, 'Any news? Any sign of anybody?' From within the hotel came noise and a faint percussion of glasses clinked in toasts: here's to you; here's to me; here's to Soviet science.
'False alarm,' said Hillier. Another thug came up, a Baltic type, to peer at Hillier as though, which he couldn't, he couldn't quite place him. 'There's a Doctor Roper here,' said Hillier, 'an Englishman.'
'Da, Doktor Ropyr, Anglichanin. Trouble at last, eh?'
"Why should there be trouble?' Hillier proffered his White Sea Canals and took one himself. He was dying for a real smoke, one of his filthy Brazilians. Thank God he'd brought some with him. Later, talking quietly with Roper, he would have one. 'There's no trouble that I know of. Something to do with his papers, that's all. A matter of routine.'
'Ah, rutina.' The first thug shrugged. Hillier was welcome to go in if he wanted. The other thug said: 'Moskva?'
'That's right, Moscow.'
'You don't talk like a Moscow man.' Nor like a Yarylyuk one either. You couldn't win.
'I,' said Hillier, 'am an Englishman who speaks very good Russian.' That went straight to their hearts. They waved him in, puffing laughter through their papirosi.
The entrance-hall was shabby and pretentious. There were a couple of noseless stone goddesses sightlessly welcoming, both eroded as by November rain, their glory gone. The carpet had, in places, worn down to a woofless warp; in other places there were holes, the biggest one outside the gentleman's tualet. An old man in uniform chewed his beard outside the lift-gates, though the lift was labelled Nye Rabotayet – Out of Order. He was sticking to his post, all he had. The dining-room was straight ahead, full of what Hillier took to be Soviet scientists. Most seemed rosy and happy: this seaside convention was doing them good. They were seated, in fours and sixes, at tables with little flags of provenance, though surely all must now be con-vivially stirred up, making nonsense of all divisions outside of palpable ethnology. Hillier squinted through the smoke: limp pennants for the Ukrainian, Azerbaijan, Georgian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, Kirghiz, Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republics, but blaring banners (several) for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Time was short. That scullion nonentity might already be at work. Where was Roper? Hillier dredged the Slav, Lithuanian, Moldavian Armenian, Ostyak, Uzbek, Chuvash, Chechenet roaring and toasting commingling for an Anglo-Saxon face. The trouble was that no one would stay still. No sense of guilt stirred by the presence of a police uniform, the scientists quaffed to each other (Budvar beer, Russian champagne, Georgian muscatel, vodka and konyak by the hundred-gramme fiasco) in amiable contortions – arms linked at the elbow, close bodily embraces so that each drank the other's, alternate cheek-smackings between draughts. Some of the scientists were ancient and giggled naughtily in their cups, beards framing wet lips framing few or no teeth. Where the hell was Roper? Hillier grabbed a white-coated waiter with a spilling tray, young, cocky, his Mongol hair in a cock-crest.
'Gdye Doktor Ropyr?'
'KtoT 'A nglichanin.'
The waiter laughed and nodded towards the far end of the dining-room. There was a glass door there that seemed to lead to a garden. 'Izvyergayet,' he said gaily. Being sick, was he? That seemed typical of Roper somehow. Hillier marched towards that door.
A string of fairy-lights with gaps in the series was draped among the cypresses: surely a scientific conference ought to be able to do better than that. Otherwise it was dark, the moon still unrisen. Hillier urgently whispered: 'Roper?' There was a response of hiccups, somehow Russianised: ikota, ikota, ikota. Wherever he was, he was outside the square of light that came from the window. Hillier nicked his lighter, thought he might, while he was at it, have a coarse Brazilian, so lit up one. Better, much better. 'Roper?' A man came up with an electric torch, a new thug, so Hillier doused his light. The man sprayed the police uniform with his beam then, satisfied, grunted and spotlighted a hiccuping shape on a stone garden-seat. 'You,' laughed the man, 'are the Englishman who speaks very good Russian.' Either he was one of the hotel-entrance thugs or else the joke had spread quickly. 'Here is another Englishman whose Russian is not so good.'
'Go away,' said Hillier. 'We want to talk.'
Roper, by the sound of it, was sick. 'Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph,' he prayed, in English.
'Amin,' said the Russian in Russian. Then he said: 'If you want to talk, go to the massage-hut there. Wait, I'll switch on the light for you. Shall I bring strong coffee?'
'That's kind,' said Hillier, uneasy that things were going so well.
'Ikota,' went Roper. 'Ikota ikota.' And then, at the end of a little path of myrtle and roses, disclosed by the walking torch, bright light, as of an interrogation-chamber, suddenly shone. Hillier took Roper's arm.
'KtoV asked sick Roper, with a very English vowel.
'Oh God,' said Roper in English. 'I meant no harm walking out like that. I can't take it like they can. I wasn't trying to be insulting.'
'Chtor 'Nichevo,' said Roper. 'Bloody blasted nichevo. I think I'm going to be sick again.' He retched, but nichevo came up.
'Perhaps,' said the thug, 'vinegar would be better than coffee.' In the full light of the hut his face showed most un-thuggish: it had something of the helpful shop-assistant in it.
'Coffee,' said Hillier. 'And thank you. But take your time about it. Shall we say in about ten minutes?'
'Ikota ikota.' Hillier kept his face averted from Roper as they entered the light.
'Ten minutes,' agreed the man, and went off.
'Now,' said Hillier in English. 'How do you feel now, Roper?' He looked full on him and was appalled by the ageing of the face. The tow hair was patchily grey; there was a twitch near the right eye. Roper looked up and stopped hiccuping. He said: 'Funny. I was thinking of you only the other day.' He tottered towards one of the four army cots on which, Hillier presumed, massage was done after ball-games on the beach, and lay on it, eyes closed. He got up swiftly and blinked. 'The bottom of the bed started coming up. The only thing that hasn't. Matric English,' said Roper. 'The Authorised Version of the Book of Job. For the literature, not the religion. And you said that Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar were a proper bloody lot of Job's comforters.'
'Strange you should remember that.'
'Oh, I've been remembering a lot of things lately.'
'Strange you should remember the names. I'd completely forgotten them. Where does that door lead to?' There was a door at the back of the hut. Hillier opened it and looked out. There was faint light now, the moon rising. He saw a high stone wall, full of crannies. Beyond the sea shook its tambourines.
'I read the Bible a lot,' said Roper. 'The Douay Version. It's not so good as the Authorised. The bloody Protestants have always had the best of everything.' He closed his eyes. 'Oh God. It's the bloody mixture that does it. They've all got iron stomachs, this lot.'
'I've come to take you home, Roper.'
'Home? To Kalinin?' He opened his eyes. 'I see you're in the police now. Funny, I should have thought they'd put you to spying or something. God, I do feel bad.'
'Don't be a fool, Roper. Wake up. You may have gone over to the Russians, but I haven't. Wake up, you bloody idiot. I'm still in the same game. I'm taking you back to England.'
Roper opened his eyes and began to shake. 'England. Filthy England. Kidnapping me, is that it? Taking me back to prison and making me stand trial and then hanging me. You're a traitor, whatever-your-name-is, I can't-remember-your-name, you're in the bloody conspiracy, it's been going on for four hundred years and more. Get out of my sight, I'll scream for help, you bastard.'
'Hillier. Remember? Denis Hillier. If you even attempt to scream I'll-Never mind. Look, Roper, there's no question of kidnapping. I've brought letters with me. Nobody's going to do anything to you. You're needed back in England, it's as simple as that. There's a quite fantastic offer here in my pocket. The trouble is, I haven't time for nice l5l cosy easy gentle persuasion. I've got to get you out of here now.'
Roper opened his mouth as to scream but then started retching and coughing. 'That bloody huh huh cigar of yours. I could smell it all over the huh huh huh house when I went home that day. And after huh huh that she left. Poor little huh huh huh girl.' He started to sweat. 'I think I want to be-' Hillier surveyed him without favour: a middle-aged man with an acquired Russian dumpiness, dressed in a dark blue shiny Russian suit, bagged and stained, its tailoring evoking an earlier age, a nonentity to whom was strapped a large mad talent. He pointed a gargoyling mouth to the concrete floor. Nothing came up, or down.
'Take deep breaths,' said Hillier gently. 'Nobody's going to make you do anything you don't want. Tell me what you've been doing all these years. Tell me what they've done to you.'
Roper breathed deep and rackingly, coughing up strings of spittle. 'I've been on fuel,' he said. 'Rockets. Cosmonauts. They've not done anything to me. They've left me alone.'
'Bloody nonsense. The scientific premises of Marxism are out of date. I told them that. They agreed.'
'Agreed, did they?'
'Of course they agreed. Self-evident. Look, I think I feel a bit better. Did that chap say something about coffee?'
'It's coming. But if you've seen through Marxism why the hell do you want to stay here? What's wrong with coming back to the West?'
'I spoke too soon. I feel awful again.'
'Oh, for Christ's sake snap out of it, man. Listen. They'll welcome you with brass bands when you get home. Can't you see, it'll be a marvellous bit of propaganda, apart from everything else. It's only a matter of getting over that wall. I've got a fake passport for you and a false beard-'
'A false beard? Oh, that's – that's-' He started to cough again.
'There's a British ship in the harbour. The _Polyolbion__. We'll be in Istanbul tomorrow. Come on, man. That wall looks easy.'
'Hillier,' said Roper soberly. 'Hillier, listen to me. I wouldn't go back to England not even if they paid me a hundred thousand pounds a year.' He paused as though he expected Hillier to say that it was roughly about that sum that was proposed in the letters he carried. Then he said: 'It's nothing to do with the government, believe me. It's to do with history.'
'Oh God, Roper, don't be so damned frivolous.'
'Frivolous you call it, frivolous? What's the name of that ship you've got out there?'
'The _Polyolbion__. But I don't see what that's-'
'It's the Perfidious _Polyolbion__ it ought to be called. There are some very good historians here, let me tell you, and they take history seriously, not like your lot back in Perfidious _Polyolbion__. They went into that business of my ancestor who was killed for his faith. They've told me never to forget, and by God they're right. That bloody flowery tepid country where bygones are always bygones. I can see him now, flesh of my flesh, screaming in agony as the flames licked him, and everybody laughing and joking. And I'm supposed to forget about that and say it was all a big mistake and no hard feelings and let's shake hands and go and have a pint of tepid creamy English bitter in the local.'
'But it's true, Roper. We've got to forget history. It's a burden we've got to shed. We can't get anything done if we carry all that dead weight on our backs.'
'Martyrs stand outside history,' said Roper. 'Edward Roper's clock stopped at two minutes to four. Fifteen fifty-eight. Martyrs are witnesses for the light, even though their lights are put out and their clocks stopped. That poor burned man may have been on the wrong track, but at least he had the right dream. The dream of a world society with man redeemed from sin. He saw Europe breaking up into little mean squabbling nations, and then usury creeping in and capitalism and wasteful wars. He had a vision of wide plains.'
'The Russian Steppes?'
'Laugh if you like. You always were one for laughing. You've never had a serious thought in your life. You've gone over lock stock and barrel to the bloody English.'
'I am bloody English. So are you.' Hillier started. 'What's that noise?'
'Rain, that's all, just rain. Not the piddling little rain of England and the measly little bit of English sun. It's not like that here. Here it's all big stuff.'
Big stuff. Rain beat on the roof like the fists of a people's revolution. 'This rain is perfect,' said Hillier. 'This is just the weather for a get-away.'
'That's right,' said Roper. 'Capitalist intrigues and ambushes and spyings and wars. Guns and get-away cars. Disguises. If I went back to the West they wouldn't use me for the conquest of space. Oh, no. Has England ever tried to put a man into space? Don't make me laugh,' he said grimly.
'We can't afford it,' shouted Hillier. The rain was near-deafening.
'No,' shouted Roper back. He was looking a lot better, as if all he'd needed was rain. 'But you can afford to be in bloody NATO and have spies and ICBMs and-Here.' He fumbled in an inner pocket. 'Here, read this.' It was a curling photostat of something. 'Whenever I start weakening and thinking of the bloody village green and British tommies nursing babies and what they call justice and democracy and fair play – whenever I think of the House of Commons and Shakespeare and the Queen's corgis 1 have a look at this. Read it, go on, read it.'
'Look, Roper, we haven't got time-'
'If you don't read it I'll scream for help.'
'You're screaming already. Russian rain isn't on your side. What is it, anyway?'
'It's an extract from Hearne's British Martyrs. Not a book I'd ever met before. But they had it in Moscow. Read it.'
Hillier read: 'Edward Roper was drawn to the marketplace in a cart. A large crowd had collected and there were many children whom their parents had brought along for the bloody, or fiery, entertainment. When Roper appeared, dressed only in shirt and trunks and hose, a great cry was raised: Have at the caitiff, he is a blasphemer, death to heresy, to the flames with him, etc. Roper smiled, even bowed, but this was taken as an impudent mockery and it intensified the clamour of vilification. Men piled kindling round the stake; it would take quickly, for the weather had long been dry. Roper, still smiling, was pushed towards it, but he said in a voice clear and unwavering: "If I cannot avoid my fate then I will walk towards it with no rough impulsion. Leave me be." And so he made his way with steady step and unhandled by the gross ministers of his martyrdom to the waiting stake, arm of Christ's tree. Before they bound him to it, he took from the bosom of his shirt a single red rose and said: "Let not this emblem of Her Majesty and of the royal house which bore her perish with me. I pray that she and her kin and indeed all her subjects, however misguided and naughtily blind to the light, may escape the fire." Whereupon he cast the rose, a full-blown June one, into the crowd, which knew not what to do with it. If they rent and dispetalled it, as having lain in the breast of a heretic and traitor, that would have been a kind of l`ese-majest'e. They seemed anxious to rid themselves of it while leaving it unscathed, so it passed swiftly to the back of the mob, where one took it and it was not seen again, though it has been said that it was kept pressed as a token of martyrdom in a book of devotions later lost. Roper was now asked if he would make his peace with God before the kindling was touched with the brand that was ready and waiting. He said: "See how that flame dissolves in the sunlight. It is a sad thing to be leaving the sun, but I know that I shall dissolve, through the agony of my burning, into the greatest sun of all. As for prayer, I pray that the Queen and this whole realm be brought back, in God's good time, to the true faith whereof I am, though bad and unworthy, a steadfast witness." At that moment the sun disappeared into the clouds, and some of the mob grew frightened as if this was a portent. And then the sun emerged again and they renewed their shouts and jeers. Roper, bound to the stake like a bear, said gaily: "Let me taste your fire. If I cry out it will be but my body crying, not my soul. I pity my poor body, as Christ on the cross must have pitied his, and in a manner beg forgiveness of it. But it will be the true witness and these impending flames ennoble it. God bless you all." He composed himself to prayer and the kindling took quickly, the crowd groaning and shouting the while though some little children cried. The fire was built up speedily with dry twigs and branches and soon small logs, and the body of Edward Roper tasted the fire. He screamed high and loud as his garments blazed, then his skin, then his flesh. Then through the smoke and flames his disfigured head, the hair an aureole, was seen to loll. Mercifully soon his death was consummated. The mob waited, in a double sweat of sun and fire, till the roasted flesh and inner organs, including the stout heart, fell into the fire, hissing and cooking; they waited till the executioner crushed the blackened bones into a powder. Then they went home or about their business, and it was noted that many who had cried out on Roper the most loud were now reduced to silence. So it may have been that the work of a martyr or witness to the light was already beginning.'
Hillier looked up, inevitably moved. Roper said: 'Not all this Russian rain can quench those flames.' Hillier said: 'This took place in 1558, did it?'
'You know it did.' The rain had grown discouraged; the fists on the roof beat more feebly.
'And it seems to have taken place in summer.'
'Yes. You can see that from the rose and the sun and the sweat. Dirty English bastards, defiling a summer's day.'
'Well,' said Hillier, 'you bloody fool, it didn't happen in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth didn't come to the throne till the November of 1558. The Queen that put your ancestor to death was Bloody Mary. You bloody benighted idiot, Roper. Curse your stupidity, you stupid idiot. Your ancestor was a witness for the Protestant faith.'
'That's not true. That can't be true.' Roper was very pale; the eye-twitch went like clockwork; he started to hiccup again: ikota ikota.
'You call yourself a bloody scientist, but you haven't even the sense to look up the facts. Your family must have been late converts, and then this story must have passed into their archives, all wrong, totally bloody wrong. Oh, you incredible idiot.'
'You're lying. Where's your ikota evidence?'
'In any reference book. Look it up tomorrow, unless, of course, your Russian pals have kindly falsified history for you. In any case, what difference does it make whether he was burned by a Catholic or a Protestant queen? It was still the foul and filthy English, wasn't it? You can still go on feeling bitter and fuelling rockets to point against the nasty treacherous West. But you're still a bloody unscientific fool.'
'But ikota-But ikota ikota-They've always said that Catholicism would have been on th'e right lines if it hadn't been for the religious ikota content. Capitalism they said was ikota a Protestant thing. I won't have it that he died for capitalism ikota. Something's gone wrong somewhere. Your history ikota books have gone all wrong.'
'What your pals do, Roper, is to choose an approach appropriate to their subject. They found the right one for you all right. And they knew you wouldn't have any historical dates among your scientific tomes. And, anyway, it won't alter things for you even now, will it? You're committed, aren't you, you silly bastard?'
Roper's hiccups suddenly stopped, but the twitch went on. 'I suppose you could say that Protestantism was the first of the great revolutions. I must think this out when I get time. Somebody said that somewhere, in some book or other, I can't remember the name. That world peace and the classless society could only come about through the death agony of an older order.'
'Oh, I can give you all that. Thesis and antithesis and synthesis and all that Marxist nonsense. Socialism had to come out of capitalism. It certainly couldn't have come out of Catholic Christianity. So you can still go on as you are, you bloody fool. Edward Roper can still go on being a martyr for a historical process that Mary Tudor was trying to hold back. You're all right, Roper. You don't have to alter your position. But don't talk to me about intellectual integrity and the importance of working from incontrovertible data. You came over here for reasons other than the martyrdom of poor bloody Edward Roper. That's just an emotional booster. You came over here because of a process that began with that German bitch. You needed a faith and you couldn't have any faith either in religion or what you used to call your country. It's all been quite logical. I even sympathise. But you're coming back with me, Roper. That's what I've been sent out for. This is my last job, but it's still a job. And I've always prided myself on doing a good job.'
'Bravo,' said a voice from the door. It had opened silently. 'But, and I'm genuinely sorry about this, nobody's going back with anybody. I too like to do a good job.' Hillier frowned, looking up at the man in the white raincoat who pointed, in an attitude of relaxed grace, a gun with a silencer attached. He thought he knew the man but he couldn't be sure. 'Wriste?' he said, incredulous.
'Mister Wriste,' smiled the man. 'The honorific is in order. My stewardship, Mr Hillier, is more exalted than you supposed.'