'It's back to those days,' twitched Roper in distaste, fascinated by the well-dressed and Harrovian rubbish on the floor. Hillier knew which days he meant. 'There are people bent on making a butcher's shop of the whole world.' He did not mean Alan, on whom he twitched a wondering and nearly grateful look. To Alan Hillier said: 'Get some fresh air. There'll be time enough to say thank you. I won't say it now except just thank you. But go and get some fresh air.' The boy nodded, out of rhythm with his empty spasms, then opened the door and went out. He'd dropped the smoking Aiken on to the nearest cot, wiping his hands against each other, as though that, the corpse-maker, were itself the corpse. From the outer darkness came the noise of song and glass-crashing. 'And now,' said Hillier, when the door was closed again, 'we'll have to be quick.'
'We? What do you mean-we? This is none of my business.'
'Oh, isn't it? You've been concealing things from me, Roper. Going on about bloody martyrdom and red roses when all the time there was something else. What have you been doing with cabinet ministers? I'll find out, never fear. In the meantime, help me to get these trousers down.'
'Disguised as a steward, was he?' said Roper, not helping. 'You just never know, do you? Harmless-looking people waiting and watching, grinning and friendly but always ready to pounce. Ikota ikota,' he hiccuped as Hillier exposed dead Wriste's left flank. 'Ergh.' He screwed up his nose. 'What the hell ikota is all this for?'
'This,' Hillier said, 'is me out of the way. Me done for, finished. The ultimate opting-out.' He took out his pocket-knife and then, digging deep, scored an S on Wriste's unresisting skin. Then he lighted a Handelsgold Brazilian, the first of his posthumous ones, puffing gratefully.
'It's a desecration,' said Roper. 'R. I. Pr He's paid the price.'
'Not quite.' By rapid pumping with his breath, Hillier inflamed the tip of the Brazilian to a red-hot poker-glow. 'This is a very inadequate substitute for the real thing,' he said, applying the first burn to the S-channel. 'But it will serve.' To the smoked-bacon smell of the gun, still lingering, a richer more meaty aroma began to be added.
'What the hell – ikota ikota-'
'Tonight,' said Hillier, 'in the L-shaped cabin we're sharing, you'll see exactly what all this is about.'
'I'm not coming. What the hell have I to come for? Where will you be going to, anyway?'
Hillier looked up and stared for four seconds. 'I just hadn't thought,' he said. 'Of course, we haven't had time to take all this in, have we?' He almost let the cigar go out. 'Good God, no. We're both exiles, aren't we?' He bellowsed the end red again and continued, delicate as a musician, his scoring.
'I'm home,' said Roper. 'This is where I live. The Soviet Union, I mean. I'm not in exile.' He coughed at the smoke and the smell of searing. 'I'm better off than you are.' And Hillier saw himself from the wooden ceiling – in stolen Soviet police-uniform, drawing an S in fire on a corpse with a ruined face, the security-men watching at Southampton, at London Airport, just to be on the safe side, the sawn-off token undelivered. 'Home,' delivered Roper, 'is where you let things gather dust, where things get lost in drawers and the waiter in the corner restaurant knows your name. It's also where the work's waiting.'
'And a woman waiting? Wife or daughter or both?'
'I've got over all that,' said Roper. 'What I mean is, in that old way. There are some very nice girls at the Institut. We have a meal and a drink and a dance. I'm not in need of anything.'
Hillier finished his pokerwork, dusting off bits of charred hair and skin. Then, without help from Roper, he pulled the trousers up and, grunting with effort and distaste, secured them to their braces. 'This raincoat will be useful,' he said.
'Defile the corpse and strip it, eh?' twitched Roper. 'Your work's very dirty work, Hillier. Not like mine.'
'Let's see what-' I'm entitled to this, thought Hillier, drawing out from the dead man's inner pocket a very fat wallet. Sterling, his own dollars, roubles. 'Roubles,' he showed Roper. 'Don't feel too secure when you talk about home. How do you know Wriste wasn't doing a job for Moscow as well as for those bastards I called my friends? A defecting scientist shot when a British ship was in port. You were going on about reading the Douay Version. Perhaps they know you'll be returning to religion one of these days-'
'Never. A load of balderdash.'
'Who can ever tell what he'll do in the future? Even tomorrow? For that matter, look at me tonight, making a good act of contrition.'
'I was ashamed of you,' twitched Roper.
'One of these days you'll be defiling your pure scientific thought with Christian sentimentality. Or getting out of Russia to kiss the Pope's toe, taking your formulae with you.'
'Look,' said Roper bluntly. 'Nobody's ever above suspicion. Do you get that? Those drunks in there are just the same as I am. It's just something you live with, but it's the same everywhere. It's the same in bloody awful England. As for that thing there,' meaning brain-smashed, branded, robbed Wriste, 'he told the truth about that bloke gunning for me in England. That's one thing he told the truth about. That business about me being too old and losing my doctorate was just a lot of nonsense. But he was right about the other thing. What I'm going to do now is get back to my room and have a decent night's kip. I'll take a couple of tablets first, I think. But I'm home, remember that. And I'm all right.'
'You very nearly weren't.'
'Nor were you.' He grinned for the first time that evening. 'Poor old Hillier. You're in a bloody bad way, aren't you? But here's something that might be useful to you. You can get the bastards with this.' And he took from his inner pocket a rather grubby wad of paper scrawled in blue ink. 'This is the chapter I've been working on. I don't think I want to push on with my memoirs now. They served their purpose, clarified things. Here you are, something to read on the voyage to wherever you're going. Where are you going?'
'First stop Istanbul. I'll think things over there. And there's a man I've got to see.' Hillier took the wad. 'You've become a great one for giving me things to read. I had things for you to read – letters. But that was a long time ago. Well, I suppose we'd both better get out of here.'
'It was nice seeing you after all these years. You could, you know,' Roper afterthought, 'stay here if you wanted. I should imagine they'd find you useful.'
'That's all over for me. I'm retiring. I don't think I like contemporary history much.'
'Some aspects of it are very interesting.' He looked at the ceiling. 'Up there, I mean. Men in space. "We'll be making the moon any day now.'
'A barren bloody chunk of green cheese. Well, you're welcome to it.'
The door opened and Alan rushed in, his face green cheese. 'There's a _thing__ out there. Something crawling and moaning. It was trying to follow me.'
It was Roper who picked up the Aiken from the cot. 'Your friend here,' he told Alan, 'is finished with all this sort of thing. Leave it to me.' He strode bravely out in a night that, the baser smells of contemporary history now subsiding, was full of rain-wet flower-scents. Meanwhile Hillier looked down on the boy, that former horrid precocious brat, with compassion and a love referred from that other love. Whether, like a father, to hide the boy's distress in his arms was something he couldn't decide. He said: 'I think I can guess what the crawling thing is. There's nothing to be frightened about. W'ell,' he added, 'I let you in for more than you could have dreamed possible when you left Southampton. Should I say I'm sorry?'
'I can't think, I just can't think.'
Hillier, seeing Theodorescu leering inside him, went hard for an instant. 'And yet,' he said, 'you seduced yourself into becoming a member of the modern world.' He shuddered, watching the lecherous breathing bulk of Theodorescu descend on the thin young body. 'You must have wanted that gun very badly.'
'I didn't know it was yours. I swear. And all I wanted to do really was to frighten her.'
'In that vast dinner-eating crowd?'
'I thought I'd get her alone. What I really mean is I didn't think. I just didn't think.' He began to cry.
Hillier put his arms round the boy's shoulders. 'I'll look after you,' he said. 'You're my responsibility now. Both of you.'
Roper could be heard speaking bad Russian. There was also the noise of skirring feet, as though a man was being half-carried. Hillier went out to help. It was the guard, sorely thumped by Wriste but not killed. A skullcap of dried blood sat on his hair; on his soaked suit a few red rose-petals clung. Roper said, weightily through his panting, 'Vot tarn chelovyek – there's the man.' The guard, open-mouthed, glazed, frowning in rhythm with his pain, saw but did not recognise. The shop-assistant's face looked bewildered, as if he had been unaccountably accused of short-changing. Wriste still had half a face. That half ought, by rights, to go. Perhaps that could be left to Roper. A totally faceless S-man was required. The guard wanted to lie down. 'And now,' said Roper, 'you two ought to get out of here. Leave everything to me now. One in the eye for old Vasnetsov and Vereshchagin in there. Drunk as coots and supposed to be in charge of security. A bit of a shambles all round. One in the eye all right, having to leave everything to an Englishman. We'll show them all yet.'
'See what I mean?' said Hillier. 'The old Adam coming out.'
'None of us is perfect. There's a bloke on this conference who says that the Ukrainians could knock spots off the Muscovites. The thing to do is to get on with the job.'
'I borrowed this jacket,' said Alan, taking it off, 'from a man asleep in the vestibule. Will you give it back to him?'
Roper took out a mess of old envelopes from the inner pocket. He snorted. 'This belongs to Vrubel. I'm going to have some fun here, I can see that. I don't care much for Vrubel.'
'We'll have to get a tram,' said Hillier. His tunic seemed crammed with passports and money. 'When we've gone, would you mind completing the image-' He made a coup de grace pantomime. Roper seemed to understand. 'With his,' he added. 'I'll have my own back.'
Roper surrendered the Aiken with a smirk of regret. 'Nice little job. I assumed you wouldn't be needing it any more.'
'It's unwise to assume anything. You should know that, being a scientist. I fancy I have just one final job to do. On my own account.'
'Well, it's been nice seeing you,' said Roper, as though Hillier had just dropped in from next door to enjoy an evening of referred crapula, fear, threats and assassination. To Alan he said: 'You've been a good boy,' as though he'd sat in the corner with cake and lemonade, causing no trouble. Then he twitched a cheery goodbye.
Going down the winding path to the coast-road, Hillier and Alan heard a very dull thud from the massage-hut. The S-man was now fully there. Alan shivered. Hillier tried to laugh, saying: 'Imagine you're in a novel by Conrad. You know the sort of thing: "By Jove, I thought, what an admirable adventure this is, and here am I, a young man in the thick of it." '
'Yes,' said Alan. 'A very young man. But ageing quite satisfactorily.'
Hillier saw trolley-sparks and heard, over the sea's swish and shingle-shuffle, the familiar rattle. 'By Jove,' he said, not in Conrad now but in Bradcaster after an evening at the cinema with Roper, running for the last tram, 'we'll have to-' They arrived breathless at the stop just as it began to rattle off. Hillier groaned under his breathless-ness as he saw who was sitting opposite.
'So it's you,' nodded the man. 'And if you think it's a bit suspicious me going off early like this, well then, you can go on thinking. I didn't feel well. You shouldn't have done what you did, threatening me like that. And I see that all you've managed to pull in is that kid there. Easy, isn't it, taking kids to the police-station and getting them to talk.'
'What does he say about me?' asked Alan fearfully.
'All right,' said Hillier and, to the man, 'Zamolchi!'
'That's all you can say, isn't it? But you won't say zamolchi to that kid there. Oh, no, you'll get him to talk. Well, he won't say anything about me because he doesn't know me and I don't know him. It's the higher-ups you ought to be going for, the head waiter and the Direktor and all that lot. All right, I've said my say.' And he took out his old copy of Sport and intently examined a photograph of a women's athletic team. But when the tram arrived on the boulevard with the mulberries and Hillier and Alan started to get off, he called: 'Samozvanyets!'
'What does that mean?' asked Alan.
'That's what you called me that evening in the bar. When you recognised that I knew nothing about typewriters. I think,' said Hillier, 'I'd better turn myself into a sort of neutral.'
'Don't say that.'
'Cap off and raincoat on. This is where my imposture starts to end.'
A boy and a bareheaded man in a white raincoat and riding-boots walked quickly down the rain-wet road that led to the dock-gates. Suddenly the quiet that should have cooed with sailors and their pick-ups erupted into mature festal cries and the roar and spit of an old motor. Its exhaust pluming, a crammed grey bus was going their way, though somewhat faster. 'It's our crowd,' said Alan, wincing on the 'our'. 'They've had their gutsing dinner. She'll be there, bitch.'
'In that case,' said Hillier, 'we'll have to run again. She mustn't get on board before we do.'
'There will be a time,' puffed running Hillier. 'Be patient.'
The well-dined passengers were already leaving the bus by the time Alan and Hillier reached the gates. 'Too many figs,' said somebody. 'I warned her.' A woman, not Mrs Walters, was being helped off, green. There was a powerful tang of raw spirits being laughed around.
'There she is,' said Alan. 'Last off, with that blond beast.' They pushed into the heart of the passport-waving queue, Hillier still panting. Soon there would be no more of that, slyness and nimbleness and hatchets; he foresaw mild autumn sun, a garden chair, misty air flawed by the smoke of mild tobacco. He felt for a passport and found several. He was inclined to shuffle them and deal at random -bearded Innes; dead Wriste; samozvanyets Jagger; true, shining, opting-out Hillier: take one, any.
'By God,' said a man to Hillier, 'you've been attacking the fleshpots and no error.' He punched Hillier lightly in the peaked cap that was hidden under the belted raincoat. 'Nice pair of boots you've got there, old man,' said somebody else. 'Where did you pick those up? Look, Alice, there's a lovely bit of Russian leather.' People, including the guard at the gate, began to peer at Hillier's legs: a space was hollowed out round him, the better to peer. 'I don't feel at all the thing,' said the green woman. Hillier shoved in, showing a picture of himself. The gate-guard compared truth and image sourly, the speed of his comparison forming a slowish nod, then grunted Hillier through. He and Alan quickly inserted themselves into a complex of belching men but found their shipward progress too slow. They sped to the view of the ship, lighted, immaculate, safe, England. But England wasn't safe any more. At the foot of the gangway well-fleshed men and women, panting under a load of Black Sea provender safely stowed, were starting to labour up. Up there he saw no Clara smiling in greeting and relief. The rail was lined with jocular wavers, but Hillier remained careful, thrusting his nose, as into a blown Dorothy Perkins, into a fat back and keeping it there. 'Have a good time, sir?' asked a voice at the top of the gangway. It was Wriste's winger-pal. 'Ta once again for the Guinness,' he added. Hillier said to Alan: 'See you in Clara's cabin,' and then rushed towards the nearest companionway, seeking A-Deck. The ship hummed with emptiness, but it wTould soon fill with drink-seekers, thirsty for something dryer, colder, less fierily crude than wThat Yarylyuk could afford. He dashed down corridors of aseptic perfume and discreet light, at last finding his own. Here was Mrs Walters's cabin.
Inside, the bedclothes hardly rucked, snored a calm sleeper: S. R. Polotski, aged 39, born Kerch, married, the dirty swine. Hillier rapidly took off Wriste's raincoat, emptied the tunic of all that he owned or had acquired, then stripped to his shirt and pants. He neatly laid S. R. Polotski's uniform on the bedside chair and placed his boots at the foot of the bunk. Then, raincoat on again, the pockets stuffed, he went to his own cabin. He opened the door cautiously: there was no smell as of harmful visitors, only the ghost of Clara's too-adult perfume lingered. He poured himself the last of the Old Mortality and drank it neat. He regretted the end of that useful, though money-loving, shipboard Wriste, then he shuddered to think how easy it was to regard a human being as a mere function. Was that what was meant by being neutral – a machine rather than a puppet-stage for the enactment of the big fight against good, or against evil? He put on a lightweight suit, knotting the tie with care. He was going to see Clara. His heart thumped, but no longer with fear.
But it was with fear that he listened outside her door, his hand on the knob. Those rhythmical screams, inhuman but like the noises made by some human engine – the screaming machine that welcomes holiday gigglers to the sixpenny Chamber of Horrors. He went in. On the bunk lay Alan prone, screaming. Clara was sitting on the bunk with him, her hair disarrayed in distress, going 'Hush now, hush dear, everything will be all right.' Seeing Hillier with hard hardly-focused eyes, she said: 'You've done this to us. I hate you.' And she got up and made for Hillier with her tiny claws, scarlet-painted beyond her years as in a school parody of flesh-tearing. Hillier could have wept out the whole horror of life in a single concentrated spasm. But he grabbed her hands and said: 'We all have to be baptised. Both your baptisms have been heroic'
From the corridor came louder screams than any of which Alan was capable. Full rich womanly outrage called. Alan was shocked into silence, listening, tear-streaked and open-mouthed. They listened all three. Poor S. R. Polotski, the dirty swine. Soon there were harsh male voices under the screams, two of them sounding marine and official.
'Unheroic,' said Clara as they heard protesting Russian somehow being kicked off. Her hands relaxed.
'Shall we,' said Hillier, 'have a large cold supper in my cabin? I'll ring for-Stupid of me,' he added.
'But that's the best way to look at him, I suppose,' said Alan. 'Just somebody nobody can ring for any more.'