An Exploratory Conversation
The door leading into the building is plain and unadorned, save for one
highly polished handle. No sign outside saying foreign and commonwealth office,
no hint of top brass. There is a small ivory bell on the right-hand side, and I
push it. The door, thicker and heavier than it appears, is opened by a
fit-looking man of retirement age, a uniformed policeman on his last assignment.
Good afternoon, sir.
Good afternoon. I have an interview with Mr. Lucas at two oclock.
The name, sir?
This almost condescending. I have to sign my name in a book and then he hands me a security dog tag on a silver chain, which I slip into the hip pocket of my suit trousers.
Just take a seat beyond the stairs. Someone will be down to see you in a moment.
The wide, high-ceilinged hall beyond the reception area exudes all the splendor of imperial England. A vast paneled mirror dominates the far side of the room, flanked by oil portraits of gray-eyed, long-dead diplomats. Its soot-flecked glass reflects the bottom of a broad staircase, which drops down in right angles from an unseen upper story, splitting left and right at ground level. Arranged around a varnished table beneath the mirror are two burgundy leather sofas, one of which is more or less completely occupied by an overweight, lonely-looking man in his late twenties. Carefully, he reads and rereads the same page of the same section of The Times, crossing and uncrossing his legs as his bowels swim in caffeine and nerves. I sit down on the sofa opposite his.
Five minutes pass.
On the table the fat man has laid down a strip of passport photographs, little color squares of himself in a suit, probably taken in a booth at Waterloo station sometime early this morning. A copy of The Daily Telegraph lies folded and unread beside the photographs. Bland nonstories govern its front page: IRA hints at new ceasefire; rail sell-off will go ahead; 56 percent of British policemen want to keep their traditional bobbies helmets. I catch the fat man looking at me, a quick spot-check glance between rivals. Then he looks away, shamed. His skin is drained of ultraviolet, a gray flannel face raised on nerd books and Panorama. Black oily Oxbridge hair.
A young woman has appeared on the staircase wearing a neat red suit. She is unflustered, professional, demure. As I stand up, Fat Man eyes me with wounded suspicion, like someone on his lunch break cut in line at the bank.
If youd like to come with me. Mr. Lucas will see you now.
This is where it begins. Following three steps behind her, garbling platitudes, adrenaline surging, her smooth calves lead me up out of the hall. More oil paintings line the ornate staircase.
Running a bit late today. Oh, thats okay. Did you find us all right? Yes.
Mr. Lucas is just in here.
Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.
A firm handshake. Late thirties. I had expected someone older. Christ, his eyes are blue. Ive never seen a blue like that. Lucas is dense boned and tanned, absurdly handsome in an old-fashioned way. He is in the process of growing a mustache, which undercuts the residual menace in his face. There are black tufts sprouting on his upper lip, cut-rate Errol Flynn.
He offers me a drink, an invitation seconded by the woman in red, who seems almost offended when I refuse.
Are you sure? she says, as if I have broken with sacred tradition. Never accept tea or coffee at an interview. Theyll see your hand shaking when you drink it.
Copyright © 2001 by Charles Cumming. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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