I trudged on toward the setting sun.
It must have been six when I reached my flat. I had the top two floors of a high, stuccoed house in what the residents called Notting Hill and the post office stubbornly insisted was North Kensington. Used syringes glittered in the gutter; at the halal butchers opposite they did the slaughtering on the premises. It was grim. But from the attic extension that served as my office I had a view across west London that would not have disgraced a skyscraper: rooftops, railway yards, motorway, and sky -- a vast urban prairie sky, sprinkled with the lights of aircraft descending toward Heathrow. It was this view that had sold me the apartment, not the estate agent's gentrification patter -- which was just as well, as the rich bourgeoisie have no more returned to this area than they have to downtown Baghdad.
Kate had already let herself in and was watching the news. Kate: I had forgotten she was coming over for the evening. She was my -- ? I never knew what to call her. To say she was my girlfriend was absurd; no one the wrong side of thirty has a girlfriend. Partner wasn't right either, as we didn't live under the same roof. Lover? How could one keep a straight face? Mistress? Do me a favor. Fiancée? Certainly not. I suppose I ought to have realized it was ominous that forty thousand years of human language had failed to produce a word for our relationship. (Kate wasn't her real name, by the way, but I don't see why she should be dragged into all this. In any case, it suits her better than the name she does have: she looks like a Kate, if you know what I mean -- sensible but sassy, girlish but always willing to be one of the boys. She worked in television, but let's not hold that against her.)
"Thanks for the concerned phone call," I said. "I'm dead, actually, but don't worry about it." I kissed the top of her head, dropped the books onto the sofa, and went into the kitchen to pour myself a whiskey. "The entire tube is down. I've had to walk all the way from Covent Garden."
"Poor darling," I heard her say. "And you've been shopping."
I topped up my glass with water from the tap, drank half, then topped it up again with whiskey. I remembered I was supposed to have reserved a restaurant. When I went back into the living room, she was removing one book after another from the carrier bag. "What's all this?" she said, looking up at me. "You're not interested in politics." And then she realized what was going on, because she was smart -- smarter than I was. She knew what I did for a living, she knew I was meeting an agent, and she knew all about McAra. "Don't tell me they want you to ghost his book?" She laughed. "You cannot be serious." She tried to make a joke of it -- "You cannot be serious" in an American accent, like that tennis player a few years ago -- but I could see her dismay. She hated Lang, felt personally betrayed by him. She used to be a party member. I had forgotten that, too.
"It'll probably come to nothing," I said and drank some more whiskey.
She went back to watching the news, only now with her arms tightly folded, always a warning sign. The ticker announced that the death toll was seven and likely to rise.
"But if you're offered it you'll do it?" she asked, without turning to look at me.
I was spared having to reply by the newsreader announcing that they were cutting live to New York to get the reaction of the former prime minister, and suddenly there was Adam Lang, at a podium marked "Waldorf-Astoria," where it looked as though he had been addressing a lunch. "You will all by now have heard the tragic news from London," he said, "where once again the forces of fanaticism and intolerance..."
Nothing he uttered that night warrants reprinting. It was almost a parody of what a politician might say after a terrorist attack. Yet, watching him, you would have thought his own wife and children had been eviscerated in the blast. This was his genius: to refresh and elevate the clichés of politics by the sheer force of his performance. Even Kate was briefly silenced. Only when he had finished and his largely female, mostly elderly audience was rising to applaud did she mutter, "What's he doing in New York, anyway?"
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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