A local woman found the body early the next morning, thrown up on the beach about four miles down the island's coast at Lambert's Cove. The driver's license in the wallet confirmed him to be Michael James McAra, age fifty, from Balham in south London. I remember feeling a sudden shot of sympathy at the mention of that dreary, unexotic suburb: he certainly was a long way from home, poor devil. His passport named his mother as his next of kin. The police took his corpse to the little morgue in Vineyard Haven and then drove over to the Rhinehart residence to break the news and to fetch one of the other guests to identify him.
It must have been quite a scene, said Rick, when the volunteer guest finally showed up to view the body: "I bet the morgue attendant is still talking about it." There was one patrol car from Edgartown with a flashing blue light, a second car with four armed guards to secure the building, and a third vehicle, bombproof, carrying the instantly recognizable man who, until eighteen months earlier, had been the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
THE LUNCH HAD BEEN Rick's idea. I hadn't even known he was in town until he rang me the night before. He insisted we meet at his club. It was not his club, exactly -- he was actually a member of a similar mausoleum in Manhattan, whose members had reciprocal dining rights in London -- but he loved it all the same. At lunchtime only men were admitted. Each wore a dark blue suit and was over sixty; I hadn't felt so young since I left university. Outside, the winter sky pressed down on London like a great gray tombstone. Inside, yellow electric light from three immense candelabra glinted on dark polished tables, plated silverware, and rubied decanters of claret. A small card placed between us announced that the club's annual backgammon tournament would be taking place that evening. It was like the changing of the guard or the houses of parliament -- a foreigner's image of England.
"I'm amazed this hasn't been in the papers," I said.
"Oh, but it has. Nobody's made a secret of it. There've been obituaries."
And, now I came to think of it, I did vaguely remember seeing something. But I had been working fifteen hours a day for a month to finish my new book, the autobiography of a footballer, and the world beyond my study had become a blur.
"What on earth was an ex-prime minister doing identifying the body of a man from Balham who fell off the Martha's Vineyard ferry?"
"Michael McAra," announced Rick, with the emphatic delivery of a man who has flown three thousand miles to deliver this punch line, "was helping him write his memoirs."
And this is where, in that parallel life, I express polite sympathy for the elderly Mrs. McAra ("such a shock to lose a child at that age"), fold my heavy linen napkin, finish my drink, say good-bye, and step out into the chilly London street with the whole of my undistinguished career stretching safely ahead of me. Instead I excused myself, went to the club's lavatory, and studied an unfunny Punch cartoon while urinating thoughtfully.
"You realize I don't know anything about politics?" I said when I got back.
"You voted for him, didn't you?"
"Adam Lang? Of course I did. Everybody voted for him. He wasn't a politician; he was a craze."
"Well, that's the point. Who's interested in politics? In any case, it's a professional ghostwriter he needs, my friend, not another goddamned politico." He glanced around. It was an iron rule of the club that no business could be discussed on the premises -- a problem for Rick, seeing as he never discussed anything else. "Marty Rhinehart paid ten million dollars for these memoirs on two conditions. First, it'd be in the stores within two years. Second, Lang wouldn't pull any punches about the war on terror. From what I hear, he's nowhere near meeting either requirement. Things got so bad around Christmas, Rhinehart gave him the use of his vacation house on the Vineyard so that Lang and McAra could work without any distractions. I guess the pressure must have gotten to McAra. The state medical examiner found enough booze in his blood to put him four times over the driving limit."
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Harris
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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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