Walking Justin along the corridor, Woodrow made to touch his arm, but some kind of revulsion caused him to withdraw his hand before it made contact. All the same he was careful to walk close enough to catch him if he sagged or stumbled in some way, because by now Justin had the air of a well-dressed sleepwalker who had abdicated his sense of destination. They were moving slowly and without much sound, but Ghita must have heard them coming because as they passed her door she opened it and tiptoed alongside Woodrow for a couple of paces while she murmured in his ear, holding back her golden hair so that it didn't brush against him.
"He disappeared. They're searching high and low for him."
But Justin's hearing was better than either of them could have anticipated. Or perhaps, in the extremity of emotion, his perceptions were abnormally acute.
"You're worrying about Arnold, I expect," he told Ghita, in the helpful tone of a stranger indicating the way.
The High Commissioner was a hollowed, hyperintelligent man, an eternal student of something. He had a son who was a merchant banker and a small daughter called Rosie who was severely brain-damaged, and a wife who, when she was in England, was a Justice of the Peace. He adored them all equally and spent his weekends with Rosie strapped to his stomach. Yet Coleridge himself had somehow remained stranded on the brink of manhood. He wore a young man's braces with baggy Oxford trousers. A matching jacket hung behind the door on a hanger with his name on it: P. Coleridge, Balliol. He stood poised at the center of his large office, his tousled head tipped angrily to Woodrow as he listened. There were tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.
"Fuck," he announced furiously, as if he had been waiting to get the word off his chest.
"I know," said Woodrow.
"That poor girl. How old was she? Nothing!"
"Twenty-five." How did I know that? "About," he added, for vagueness.
"She looked about eighteen. That poor bugger Justin with his flowers."
"I know," Woodrow said again.
"Does Ghita know?"
"What the hell will he do? He hasn't even got a career. They were all set to throw him out at the end of this tour. If Tessa hadn't lost her baby, they'd have ditched him in the next cull." Sick of standing in one place, Coleridge swung away to another part of the room. "Rosie caught a two-pound trout on Saturday," he blurted accusingly. "What do you make of that?"
Coleridge had this habit of buying time with unannounced diversions.
"Splendid," Woodrow murmured dutifully.
"Tessa'd have been thrilled to bits. Always said Rosie would make it. And Rosie adored her."
"I'm sure she did."
"Wouldn't eat it, mind. We had to keep the sod on life support all weekend, then bury it in the garden." A straightening of the shoulders indicated that they were in business again. "There's a back story to this, Sandy. A bloody messy one."
"I'm well aware of that."
"That shit Pellegrin's already been on the line bleating about limiting the damage" -- Sir Bernard Pellegrin, Foreign Office mandarin with special responsibility for Africa and Coleridge's archenemy -- "how the hell are we supposed to limit the damage when we don't know what the fucking damage is? Ruined his tennis for him too, I expect."
"She was with Bluhm for four days and nights before she died," Woodrow said, glancing at the door to make sure it was still shut. "If that's damage. They did Loki, then they did Turkana. They shared a cabin and Christ knows what. A whole raft of people saw them together."
"Thanks. Thanks very much. Just what I wanted to hear." Plunging his hands deep into his baggy pockets, Coleridge waded round the room. "Where the fuck is Bluhm, anyway?"
Copyright © 2001 by David Cornwell.
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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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