He'd never flown the Atlantic before. He'd flown plenty of times. His
years in the RAF had seen to that. He'd scrounged flights almost like
hitching car rides. But he'd never done a long haul. It was the stuff of
Sunday colour supplement advertising. "International" was a positive in
the adman's world. It implied you were beyond the pettiness of nations,
that you were post post-war, that you moved in a world peopled by the
likes of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, that you sat in the VIP lounge at
airports, and had a bag emblazoned with the name of the airline. Things
like that were coveted. It was chic to be seen with a cheap plastic holdall
marked BOAC, chic-er still to be seen with the one Wilderness now
had bearing the Pan Am logo.
Frank hadn't been mean with him. Whatever Frank's faultslies, tricks, half-truths, cheapness was not one of them. First class all the way. The hostess handed him a package as soon as he took his seat, saying "A present from Mr. Spoleto."
Inside were two books and a note in Frank's hand saying, "Don't get too bored."
He looked at the titles. The Ipcress File. King Rat. An hour out of Heathrow he abandoned the former in favour of the latter. Too damn difficult. Fifty pages into the steamy jungle of King Rat he fell asleep. Woke, read another fifty and napped again. When he awoke the second time, the plane was over Newfoundland. Canada, America . . . New York. As the Fasten Seat Belt sign came on, the man sitting next to him spoke. Overweight, balding, brimming with bonhomie, capableWilderness thoughtof rattling on for ages. But, they'd exchanged half a dozen pleasantries over the meal several hours ago, and then the man had slept the uninterrupted sleep of a seasoned traveller sedated on free champagne and Southern Comfort.
"First time?" he asked. A question left over from the simple pleasantries that he hadn't asked first time around.
"Is it that obvious?"
"You get so you can tell. Just the way a guy looks around. The way he talks to the hostesses."
"Too polite. Too grateful. We paid for all the stuff they thrust at us."
"Or," said Wilderness. "Somebody paid."
"Right. Who'd ever pay for their own ticket? Ought to be down as one of the rules in the game of life. Play it right and somebody else will always pay."
It was a disappointment. For some reason, doubtless a stupid reason, he'd expected to be able to see skyscrapers the second they stepped out of the terminal. There were none, they were way out on Long Island in a big, flat nothing. Idlewild seemed to be the right name. He strained towards the western horizon, hoping at least for a glimpse of Manhattan. He stood next to the fat man in the queue for Checker cabs. Every one that pulled up made him feel a mile nearer to the city. A fleck of deep, warm yellow somehow just blown his way. They were at least six places away from getting a cab, when a tall, black man in a grey suit approached and asked if he were Mr. Holderness.
"Sorry to be late, sir. An accident on the expressway. Mr. Spoleto's car is waiting. We'll have you in Manhattan in no time at all." Wilderness knew he should offer the fat man a ride, but he wanted to be selfish, to enter the city without the voice of experience jabbering in his ear. Manhattan was worth approaching in innocence. Find out for himself. He just shook his hand and said, "Thanks for the motto. I'll treasure it."
"Motto? What motto?"
"Play it right and somebody else will always pay."
He was still chuckling at his own wit as the Negro picked up the suitcase and led Wilderness across the lane to a Cadillac. A big car. A ridiculous car. Low-slung, fat, covered in chrome and sporting huge rear fins. It reminded him of a beached shark. Cadillac Deville Sedan, the driver replied, when Wilderness asked.
Then We Take Berlin © 2013 by John Lawton; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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