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by John le Carré
Little, Brown, 2006
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My name is Bruno Salvador. My friends call me Salvo, so do my enemies. Contrary to what anybody may tell you, I am a citizen in good standing of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and by profession a top interpreter of Swahili and the lesser-known but widely spoken languages of the Eastern Congo, formerly under Belgian rule, hence my mastery of French, a further arrow in my professional quiver. I am a familiar face around the London law courts both civil and criminal, and in regular demand at conferences on Third World matters, see my glowing references from many of our nation’s finest corporate names. Due to my special skills I have also been called upon to do my patriotic duty on a confidential basis by a government department whose existence is routinely denied. I have never been in trouble, I pay my taxes regularly, have a healthy credit rating and am the owner of a well-conducted bank account. Those are cast-iron facts that no amount of bureaucratic manipulation can alter, however hard they try.
In six years of honest labour in the world of commerce I have applied my services — be it by way of cautiously phrased conference calls or discreet meetings in neutral cities on the European continent — to the creative adjustment of oil, gold, diamond, mineral and other commodity prices, not to mention the diversion of many millions of dollars from the prying eyes of the world’s shareholders into slush funds as far removed as Panama, Budapest and Singapore. Ask me whether, in facilitating these transactions, I felt obliged to consult my conscience and you will receive the emphatic answer, ‘No.’ The code of your top interpreter is sacrosanct. He is not hired to indulge his scruples. He is pledged to his employer in the same manner as a soldier is pledged to the flag. In deference to the world’s unfortunates, however, it is also my practice to make myself available on a pro bono basis to London hospitals, prisons and the immigration authorities despite the fact that the remuneration in such cases is peanuts.
I am on the voters’ list at number 17, Norfolk Mansions, Prince of Wales Drive, Battersea, South London, a desirable freehold property of which I am the minority co-owner together with my legal wife Penelope — never call her Penny — an upper-echelon Oxbridge journalist four years my senior and, at the age of thirty-two, a rising star in the firmament of a mass-market British tabloid capable of swaying millions. Penelope’s father is the senior partner of a blue-chip City law firm and her mother a major force in her local Conservative Party. We married five years ago on the strength of a mutual physical attraction, plus the understanding that she would get pregnant as soon as her career permitted, owing to my desire to create a stable nuclear family complete with mother along conventional British lines. The convenient moment has not, however, presented itself, due to her rapid rise within the paper and other factors.
Our union was not in all regards orthodox. Penelope was the elder daughter of an all-white Surrey family in high professional standing, while Bruno Salvador, alias Salvo, was the natural son of a bog Irish Roman Catholic missionary and a Congolese village woman whose name has vanished for ever in the ravages of war and time. I was born, to be precise, behind the locked doors of a Carmelite convent in the town of Kisangani, or Stanleyville as was, being delivered by nuns who had vowed to keep their mouths shut, which to anybody but me sounds funny, surreal or plain invented. But to me it’s a biological reality, as it would be for you if at the age of ten you had sat at your saintly father’s bedside in a Mission house in the lush green highlands of South Kivu in the Eastern Congo, listening to him sobbing his heart out half in Norman French and half in Ulsterman’s English, with the equatorial rain pounding like elephant feet on the green tin roof and the tears pouring down his fever-hollowed cheeks so fast you’d think the whole of Nature had come indoors to join the fun. Ask a Westerner where Kivu is, he will shake his head in ignorance and smile. Ask an African and he will tell you, ‘Paradise,’ for such it is: a Central African land of misted lakes and volcanic mountains, emerald pastureland, luscious fruit groves and similar.
In his seventieth and last year of life my father’s principal worry was whether he had enslaved more souls than he had liberated. The Vatican’s African missionaries, according to him, were caught in a perpetual cleft stick between what they owed to life and what they owed to Rome, and I was part of what he owed to life, however much his spiritual Brothers might resent me. We buried him in the Swahili language, which was what he’d asked for, but when it fell to me to read ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ at his graveside, I gave him my very own rendering in Shi, his favourite among all the languages of the Eastern Congo for its vigour and flexibility.
Illegitimate sons-in-law of mixed race do not merge naturally into the social fabric of wealthy Surrey, and Penelope’s parents were no exception to this time-honoured truism. In a favourable light, I used to tell myself when I was growing up, I look more suntanned Irish than mid-brown Afro, plus my hair is straight not crinkly, which goes a long way if you’re assimilating. But that never fooled Penelope’s mother or her fellow wives at the golf club, her worst nightmare being that her daughter would produce an all-black grandchild on her watch, which may have accounted for Penelope’s reluctance to put matters to the test, although in retrospect I am not totally convinced of this, part of her motive in marrying me being to shock her mother and upstage her younger sister.
A word here regarding my dear late father’s life struggle will not be deemed out of place. His entry into the world, he confided to me, had been no smoother than my own. Born in 1917 to a corporal in the Royal Ulster Fusiliers and a fourteen-year-old Normandy peasant girl who happened to be passing at the time, he spent his childhood on the shunt between a hovel in the Sperrin Mountains and another in northern France, until by dint of study plus his inherited bilinguality he clawed himself a place in a Junior Seminary in the wilds of County Donegal and thus set his young feet unthinkingly on the path to God.
Sent to France for the greater refinement of his faith, he endured without complaint interminable years of gruelling instruction in Catholic theology, but as soon as the Second World War broke out he grabbed the nearest bicycle, which with Irish wit he assured me was the property of a godless Protestant, and pedalled hell for leather across the Pyrenees to Lisbon. Stowing away on a tramper bound for Leopoldville as was, he evaded the attentions of a colonial government ill disposed towards stray white missionaries, and attached himself to a remote community of friars dedicated to bringing the One True Faith to the two hundred-odd tribes of the Eastern Congo, an ambitious commitment at any time. Those who now and then have accused me of impulsiveness need look no further than my dear late father on his heretic’s pushbike.
Aided by native converts whose tongues the natural linguist swiftly made his own, he baked bricks and limed them with red mud trodden by his own feet, dug ditches in the hillside and installed latrines amid the banana groves. Next came the building: first the church, then the school with its twin bell tower, then the Mother Mary Clinic, then the fish-ponds and fruit and vegetable plantations to supply them, such being his true vocation as a peasant in a region lavishly endowed with Nature’s riches whether you are talking cassava, papaya, maize, soya beans, quinine, or Kivu’s wild strawberries which are the best in the world bar none. After all this came the Mission house itself, and behind the Mission house a low brick hostel with small windows high up for Mission servants.
In God’s name he trekked hundreds of kilometres to remote patelins and mining settlements, never failing when opportunity arose to add another language to his ever-growing collection until a day when he returned to his Mission to find his fellow priests fled, the cows, goats and chickens stolen, the school and Mission house razed, the hospital pillaged, its nurses hamstrung, raped and slaughtered, and himself a prisoner of the last rag-tag elements of the fearsome Simba, a murderous rabble of misguided revolutionists whose sole aim, until their official extinction a few years previously, had been to visit death and mayhem on all perceived agents of colonisation, which could be anyone nominated by themselves, or by the guiding spirits of their long-deceased warrior ancestors.
As a general principle, it is true, the Simba stopped short of harming white priests, fearing that by doing so they would break the dawa that rendered themselves immune to flying bullets. In the case of my dear late father, however, his captors were quick to set aside their reservations, arguing that since he spoke their language as well as they did, he was plainly a black devil in disguise. Of his fortitude in captivity many inspiring anecdotes were later told. Whipped repeatedly in order to expose the true colour of his devil’s skin, tortured and forced to witness the torturing of others, he proclaimed the Gospel and begged God’s forgiveness for his tormentors. Whenever able, he went among his fellow prisoners, administering the Sacrament. Yet not the Holy Church in all its wisdom could have been prepared for the cumulative effect on him of these privations. Mortification of the flesh, we are taught, furthers the triumph of the spirit. Such however was not the case for my dear late father, who within months of his release had demonstrated the flaw in this convenient theory, and not merely with my dear late mother:
If there is divine purpose to your conception, son, he confided to me on his deathbed, resorting to his lovely Irish brogue lest his fellow priests should overhear him through the floorboards, it is to be found in that stinking prison hut and at the whipping post. The thought that I might die without knowing the consolation of a woman’s body was the one torture I could not bear.
Her reward for producing me was as cruel as it was unjust. At my father’s urging she set off for her home village with the intention of giving birth to me among her clan and tribe. But these were turbulent times for the Congo or, as General Mobutu insisted it be known, Zaire. In the name of Authenticity, foreign priests had been expelled for the crime of baptising babies with Western names, schools had been forbidden to teach the life of Jesus, and Christmas declared a normal working day. It was therefore not surprising that the elders of my mother’s village baulked at the prospect of nurturing a white missionary’s love-child whose presence among them could invite instant retribution, and accordingly sent the problem back to where it came from.
But the Mission Fathers were as reluctant as the village elders to receive us, referring my mother instead to a distant convent where she arrived with only hours to spare before my birth. Three months of tough love at the hands of the Carmelites were more than enough for her. Reasoning that they were better placed than she to provide me with a future, she consigned me to their mercy and, escaping at dead of night by way of the bath-house roof, crept back to her kin and family, who weeks afterwards were massacred in their entirety by an aberrant tribe, right down to my last grandparent, uncle, cousin, distant aunt and half-brother or sister.
A village headman’s daughter, son, my father whispered through his tears, when I pressed him for details that might assist me in forming a mental picture of her to sustain me in my later years. I had taken shelter under his roof. She cooked our food and brought me the water to wash with. It was the generosity of her that overwhelmed me. He had eschewed the pulpit by then, and had no appetite for verbal pyrotechnics. Nevertheless the memory rekindled the Irishman’s smouldering rhetorical fires: As tall as you’ll be one day, son! As beautiful as all creation! How in God’s name can they tell me you were born in sin? You were born in love, my son! There is no sin but hate!
The retribution meted out to my father by the Holy Church was less draconian than my mother’s, but severe. One year in a Jesuit rehab penitentiary outside Madrid, two more as a worker-priest in a Marseilles slum, and only then back to the Congo he so unwisely loved. And how he swung it I don’t know, and probably God doesn’t either, but somewhere along his stony path he persuaded the Catholic orphanage that had custody of me to give me up to him. Thereafter the half-caste bastard who was Salvo trailed after him in the care of servants chosen for their age and ugliness, first in the guise of offspring of a deceased uncle, later as acolyte and server, until that fateful night of my tenth birthday when, conscious as much of his mortality as my ripening, he poured out his very human heart to me as described above, which I regarded, and still do, as the greatest compliment a father can pay to his accidental son.
The years following my dear late father’s death did not pass smoothly for the orphaned Salvo, owing to the fact that the white missionaries viewed my continued presence among them as a festering affront, hence my Swahili nickname of mtoto wa siri or secret child. Africans maintain that we derive our spirit from our father and our blood from our mother, and that was my problem in a nutshell. Had my dear late father been black, I might have been tolerated as excess baggage. But he was white through and through, whatever the Simba might have thought, and Irish with it, and white missionaries, it is well known, do not engender babies on the side. The secret child might serve at priests’ table and the altar, and attend their schools but, come the approach of an ecclesiastical dignitary of whatever colour, he was whisked to the Mission workers’ hostel to be hidden until the threat blew over, which is neither to disparage the Brethren for their high-mindedness, nor to blame them for the occasionally excessive warmth of their regard. Unlike my dear late father, they had restricted themselves to their own gender when addressing their carnality: as witness Père André our great Mission orator who lavished more attention on me than I could comfortably accommodate, or Père François, who liked to think of André as his chosen friend and took umbrage at this flowering of affection. In our Mission school, meanwhile, I enjoyed neither the deference shown to our smattering of white children nor the comradeship owed me by my native peers. Little wonder then if I gravitated naturally towards the Mission servants’ low brick hostel which, unbeknown to the Fathers, was the true hub of our community, the natural sanctuary for any passing traveller, and the trading point of oral information for miles around.
And it was there, curled up unnoticed on a wood pallet beside the brick chimney-breast, that I listened spellbound to the tales of itinerant huntsmen, witch doctors, spell-sellers, warriors and elders, scarcely venturing a word of my own for fear of being packed off to bed. It was there also that my ever-growing love of the Eastern Congo’s many languages and dialects took root. Hoarding them as my dear late father’s precious legacy, I covertly polished and refined them, storing them in my head as protection from I knew not what perils, pestering native and missionary alike for a nugget of vernacular or turn of phrase. In the privacy of my tiny cell I composed my own childish dictionaries by candlelight. Soon, these magic puzzle-pieces became my identity and refuge, the private sphere that nobody could take away from me and only the few enter.
And I have often wondered, as I wonder now, what course the secret child’s life might have taken, had I been permitted to continue along this solitary and ambivalent path: and whether the pull of my mother’s blood might have turned out to be stronger than my father’s spirit. The question remains academic, however, since my dear late father’s former brethren were energetically conspiring to be rid of me. My accusing skin colour, my versatility in languages, my cocky Irish manner and worst of all the good looks that, according to the Mission servants, I owed to my mother, were a daily reminder of his erring ways.
After much intrigue, it transpired against all likelihood that my birth had been registered with the British Consul in Kampala, according to whom Bruno-Other-Names-Unknown was a foundling adopted by the Holy See. His purported father, a Northern Irish seafarer, had thrust the newborn child into the arms of the Carmelite Mother Superior with the entreaty that I be fostered in the True Faith. He had thereupon vanished without leaving a forwarding address. Or so ran the implausible handwritten account of the good Consul, who was himself a loyal son of Rome. The surname Salvador, he explained, had been selected by the Mother Superior herself, she being of Spanish origin.
But why quibble? I was an official dot on the world population map, ever thankful to the long left arm of Rome for coming to my aid.
Directed by the same long arm to my non-native England, I was placed under the protection of the Sanctuary of the Sacred Heart, an eternal boarding school for ambiguous Catholic orphans of the male gender set among the rolling Sussex Downs. My arrival within its prison-like gates one arctic afternoon in late November awoke a spirit of rebellion in me for which neither I nor my hosts were prepared. In the space of a few weeks I had set fire to my bed-sheets, defaced my Latin primer, absented myself from Mass without permission and been caught attempting to escape in the back of a laundry van. If the Simba had whipped my dear late father in order to prove that he was black, the Father Guardian’s energies were directed to proving I was white. As an Irishman himself, he felt particularly challenged. Savages, he thundered at me as he toiled, are by nature rash. They have no middle gear. The middle gear of any man is self-discipline and by beating me, and praying for me while he was about it, he hoped to make up for my deficiency. Unknown to him, however, rescue was at hand in the person of a grizzled but energetic friar who had turned his back on birth and wealth.
Brother Michael, my new protector and appointed Confessor, was a scion of the English Catholic gentry. His lifelong wanderings had taken him to the remotest ends of the earth. Once I had grown accustomed to his fondlings we became close friends and allies, and the Father Guardian’s attentions commensurately declined, though whether this was a consequence of my reformed behaviour or, as I now suspect, some pact between them, I neither knew nor cared. In a single bracing afternoon’s walk across the rain-swept Downs, interrupted by demonstrations of affection, Brother Michael convinced me that my mixed race, far from being a taint to be expunged, was God’s precious gift to me, a view in which I gratefully concurred. Best of all he loved my ability, which I was bold enough to demonstrate to him, to glide without hiatus from one language to another. At the Mission house I had paid dearly for showing off my talents but under Brother Michael’s doting eye they acquired near-Heavenly status:
‘What greater blessing, my dear Salvo,’ he cried, while a wiry fist shot out of his habit to punch the air and the other foraged guiltily among my clothing, ‘than to be the bridge, the indispensable link, between God’s striving souls? To draw His children together in harmonious and mutual understanding?’
What Michael didn’t already know of my life history I soon recounted to him in the course of our excursions. I told him of my magic nights at the fireside of the servants’ hostel. I described how, in my father’s last years, he and I would journey to an outlying village, and while he was conferring with the elders I would be down on the river bank with the children bartering the words and idioms that were my day-and-night preoccupation. Others might look to rough games, wild animals, plants or native dance as their path to happiness, but Salvo the secret child had opted for the lilting intimacies of the African voice in its myriad shades and variations.
And it was while I was recalling these and similar adventures that Brother Michael was granted his Damascene epiphany.
‘As the Lord hath been pleased to sow in you, Salvo, so let us now together reap!’ he cried.
And reap we did. Deploying skills better suited to a military commander than a monk, the aristocratic Michael studied prospectuses, compared fees, marched me to interviews, vetted my prospective tutors, male or female, and stood over me while I enrolled myself. His purposes, inflamed by adoration, were as implacable as his faith. I was to receive formal grounding in each and every one of my languages. I was to rediscover those that in the course of my roving childhood had fallen by the wayside.
How was all this to be paid for? By a certain angel delivered to us in the form of Michael’s rich sister Imelda, whose pillared house of honey-golden sandstone, nestling in the folds of middle Somerset, became my sanctuary away from the Sanctuary. In Willowbrook, where rescued pit-ponies grazed in the paddock and each dog had its own armchair, there lived three hearty sisters of whom Imelda was the eldest. We had a private chapel and an Angelus bell, a ha-ha and an ice-house and a croquet lawn and weeping lime trees that blew down in gales. We had Uncle Henry’s Room because Aunt Imelda was the widow of a war hero named Henry who single-handed had made England safe for us, and there he was, from his first teddy-bear lying on his pillow to his Last Letter from the Front in a gold-cased lectern. But no photograph, thank you. Aunt Imelda, who was as tart in manner as she was soft in heart, remembered Henry perfectly well without, and that way she kept him to herself.
But Brother Michael knew my weak spots too. He knew that child prodigies — for as such he saw me — must be restrained as well as nurtured. He knew I was diligent but headlong: too eager to give myself to anyone who was kind to me, too fearful of being rejected, ignored or worst of all laughed at, too swift to embrace whatever was offered me for fear I wouldn’t get another chance. He treasured as much as I did my mynah-bird ear and jackdaw memory, but insisted I practise them as diligently as a musician his instrument, or a priest his faith. He knew that every language was precious to me, not only the heavyweights but the little ones that were condemned to die for want of written form; that the missionary’s son needed to run after these erring sheep and lead them back to the fold; that I heard legend, history, fable and poetry in them and the voice of my imagined mother regaling me with spirit-tales. He knew that a young man who has his ears open to every human nuance and inflexion is the most suggestible, the most malleable, the most innocent and easily misled. Salvo, he would say, take care. There are people out there whom God alone can love.
It was Michael also who, by forcing me down the hard road of discipline, turned my unusual talents into a versatile machine. Nothing of his Salvo should go to waste, he insisted, nothing be allowed to rust for want of use. Every muscle and fibre of my divine gift must receive its daily workout in the gymnasium of the mind, first by way of private tutors, afterwards at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where I obtained First Class honours in African Language and Culture, specialising in Swahili with French a given. And finally in Edinburgh where I achieved the crowning glory: a Master of Science degree in Translation and Public Service Interpreting.
Thus by the close of my studies I boasted more diplomas and interpreterships than half the flyblown translation agencies hawking their grubby services up and down Chancery Lane. And Brother Michael, dying on his iron cot, was able to stroke my hands and assure me that I was his finest creation, in recognition of which he pressed upon me a gold wristwatch, a present to him from Imelda whom God preserve, entreating me to keep it wound at all times as a symbol of our bond beyond the grave.
Never mistake, please, your mere translator for your top interpreter. An interpreter is a translator, true, but not the other way round. A translator can be anyone with half a language skill and a dictionary and a desk to sit at while he burns the midnight oil: pensioned-off Polish cavalry officers, underpaid overseas students, minicab drivers, part-time waiters and supply teachers, and anyone else who is prepared to sell his soul for seventy quid a thousand. He has nothing in common with the simultaneous interpreter sweating it out through six hours of complex negotiations. Your top interpreter has to think as fast as a numbers boy in a coloured jacket buying financial futures. Better sometimes if he doesn’t think at all, but orders the spinning cogs on both sides of his head to mesh together, then sits back and waits to see what pours out of his mouth.
People come up to me sometimes during conferences, usually at the teasy end of the day between close of business and the cocktail frenzy. ‘Hey, Salvo, settle an argument for us, will you? What’s your mother tongue?’ And if I consider they’re being a bit uppity, which they usually are because they have by now convinced themselves they’re the most important people on the planet, I’ll turn the question round on them. ‘Depends who my mother was, doesn’t it?’ I reply, with this enigmatic smile I’ve got. And after that, they leave me with my book.
But I like them to wonder. It shows me that I’ve got my voice right. My English voice, I mean. It isn’t upper, middle or coach. It isn’t faux royale, neither is it the Received Pronunciation derided by the British Left. It is, if anything at all, aggressively neuter, pitched at the extreme centre of Anglophone society. It’s not the sort of English where people say, ‘Ah, that’s where he was dragged up, that’s who he’s trying to be, that’s who his parents were, poor chap, and that’s where he went to school.’ It does not — unlike my French which, strive as I may, will never totally rid itself of its African burden — betray my mixed origins. It’s not regional, it’s not your Blairite wannabe-classless slur or your high-Tory curdled cockney or your Caribbean melody. And it hasn’t so much as a trace of the gone-away vowels of my dear late father’s Irish brogue. I loved his voice, and love it still, but it was his and never mine.
No. My spoken English is blank, scrubbed clean and unbranded, except for an occasional beauty spot: a deliberate sub-Saharan lilt, which I refer to sportingly as my drop of milk in the coffee. I like it, clients like it. It gives them the feeling I’m comfortable with myself. I’m not in their camp but I’m not in the other fellow’s either. I’m stuck out there in mid-ocean and being what Brother Michael always said I should be: the bridge, the indispensable link between God’s striving souls. Each man has his vanity and mine is about being the one person in the room nobody can do without.
And that’s the person I wanted to be for my ravishing wife Penelope as I half killed myself racing up two flights of stone steps in my desperate effort not to be late for the festivities being held in her honour in the upstairs rooms of a fashionable winery in London’s Canary Wharf, capital of our great British newspaper industry, prior to a formal dinner for the selected few at the exclusive Kensington home of her paper’s newest billionaire proprietor.
Only twelve minutes late by Aunt Imelda’s gold watch, you may say, and to all outward appearances salon fresh, which in bomb-scared London with half the tube stations on the blink might be regarded as an achievement, but to Salvo the hyper-conscientious husband it could as well have been twelve hours. Penelope’s big night, the biggest of her meteoric career to date, and me her husband rolling up after all the guests have walked over from her paper’s offices across the road. From the North London District Hospital where I had been unavoidably detained since the previous evening by circumstances outside my control, I had splashed out on a cab all the way home to Battersea, and made it wait while I quick-changed into my brand-new dinner jacket, this being de rigueur at the proprietor’s table, with no chance to shave or shower or brush my teeth. By the time I arrived at the due destination and in the appropriate costume, I was in a muck sweat, but somehow I had made it and here I was; and here they were, a hundred or more of Penelope’s assorted colleagues, the upper few in dinner jackets and long dresses, the rest smart-casual, and all of them crowded into a first-floor function room with low beams and plastic suits of armour on the wall, drinking warm white wine with their elbows out, and me the latecomer stuck at the edge with the waiters, mostly black.
I couldn’t see her to begin with. I thought she’d gone AWOL like her husband. Then I had a moment hoping she’d decided to stage a late entry, until I spotted her squashed up at the far end of the room engaged in animated conversation with her paper’s top brass and wearing the latest thing in flowing satin trouser-suits that she must have bought herself as a present and changed into at her office or wherever she’d last been. Why, oh why — cried one side of my head — had I not bought it for her? Why hadn’t I said to her a week ago over breakfast or in bed, assuming she was there to say it to: Penelope my darling, I’ve had this great idea, let’s go to Knightsbridge together and choose ourselves a new outfit for your big night, all on me? Shopping is what she likes best. I could have made an occasion of it, played her gentleman admirer, dined her at one of her favourite restaurants, never mind she’s earning twice the money I am, plus perks you wouldn’t believe.
On the other hand, for reasons to be addressed in a more reposeful moment, there was another side of my head that was very pleased I hadn’t made any such proposal, which has nothing to do with the money, but says much for the contrary currents of the human mind under stress.
An unknown hand pinched my bottom. I swung round to meet the beatific gaze of Jellicoe, alias Jelly, the paper’s latest Young White Hope, recently poached from a rival newspaper. Lank, drunk and whimsical as usual, he was tendering a hand-rolled cigarette between his slender finger and thumb.
‘Penelope, it’s me, I made it!’ I yelled, ignoring him. ‘Tough time at the hospital. Terribly sorry!’
Sorry for what? For the tough time? A couple of heads turned. Oh him. Salvo. Penelope’s spearman. I tried louder, deploying wit. ‘Hey, Penelope! Remember me? It’s me, your late husband,’ and I got myself all geared up to launch into an over-elaborate cover story about how one of my hospitals — I would not for security reasons have mentioned which — had summoned me to the bedside of a dying Rwandan man with a criminal history who kept going in and out of consciousness, requiring me to interpret not only for the nursing staff but for two Scotland Yard detectives as well, which I hoped was a predicament she would take to heart: poor Salvo. I saw a creamy smile come over her face, and I thought I’d got through to her till I realised it was beamed upwards at the thick-necked male who was standing on a chair in his dinner jacket shouting, ‘Quiet, damn you! Will you shut the fuck up, all of you!’ in a Scottish brogue.
At once his unruly audience fell silent, gathering to him with sheepish obedience. For this was none other than Penelope’s all-powerful editor-in-chief Fergus Thorne, known in press circles as Thorne the Horn, announcing that he proposed to make a facetious speech about my wife. I hopped about, I did my utmost to make eye contact with her, but the face from which I craved absolution was lifted to her boss like a flower to the sun’s life-giving rays.
‘Now we all know Penelope,’ Thorne the Horn was saying, to jeers of sycophantic laughter which annoyed me, ‘and we all love Penelope’ — a significant pause — ‘from our respective positions.’
I was trying to squeeze my way through to her but the ranks had closed and Penelope was being handed forward like the blushing bride till she was stationed obediently at Mr Thorne’s feet, incidentally providing him with a bird’s-eye view down the front of her highly revealing outfit. And it was beginning to enter my mind that she might not have registered my absence, let alone my presence, when my attention was diverted by what I diagnosed as God’s judgment upon me in the form of a force twelve heart attack. My chest was trembling, I could feel a numbness spreading in rhythmic waves from my left nipple, and I thought my time had come and serve me right. It was only when I clapped my hand to the afflicted area that I realised that my cellphone was summoning me in its unfamiliar vibrator mode which was how I had set it prior to departure from the hospital one hour and thirty-five minutes previously.
My exclusion from the throng now turned to my advantage. While Mr Thorne developed his double-edged remarks about my wife, I was able to tiptoe gratefully towards a door marked TOILETS. Making good my exit, I glanced back one more time to see Penelope’s newly coiffed head lifted to her employer, her lips parted in pleasurable surprise and her breasts on full parade inside the skimpy upper section of her trouser-suit. I let my phone go on trembling till I was down three steps into a quiet corridor, pressed green and held my breath. But instead of the voice I feared and longed to hear above all others, I got the avuncular north country burr of Mr Anderson of the Ministry of Defence, wanting to know whether I was free to take on a bit of rather vital interpreting for my country at short notice, which he sincerely hoped I was.
That Mr Anderson should be calling a mere part-timer such as myself in person indicated the magnitude of the crisis at hand. My normal contact was Barney, his flamboyant floor manager. Twice in the last ten days Barney had put me on standby for what he called a hot one, only to tell me I could stand down again.
‘Now, Mr Anderson?’
‘This minute. Preferably sooner, if that’s convenient. Sorry to break up your drinks party and all that, but we need you fast,’ he continued, and I suppose I should have been surprised that he knew about Penelope’s party but I wasn’t. Mr Anderson was a man who made it his business to know things denied to humbler mortals. ‘It’s your home territory, Salvo, your heartland.’
‘But Mr Anderson.’
‘What is it, son?’
‘It isn’t just her drinks party. There’s the new proprietor’s dinner afterwards. Black tie,’ I added, to impress. ‘It’s unprecedented. For a proprietor, I mean. Editor-in-Chief, yes. But proprietor -’ Call it guilt, call it sentiment, I owed it to Penelope to put up a show of resistance.
A silence followed as if I had caught him on the back foot, but nobody does that to Mr Anderson, he’s the rock on which his own church is built.
‘Is that what you’re wearing, is it, son? A dinner jacket?’
‘It is indeed, Mr Anderson.’
‘Now? As we speak? You’ve got it on?’
‘Yes.’ What did he suppose? That I was attending a Bacchanalia? ‘How long’s it for anyway?’ I asked in the ensuing silence, made deeper, I suspected, by the fact that he had put his massive hand over the mouthpiece.
‘How long’s what, son?’ — as if he’d lost the thread.
‘The assignment, sir. The urgent job you need me for. How long?’
‘Two days. Call it three for safety. They’ll pay good money, they expect to. Five K American would not be considered excessive.’ And after further off-air consultation, in a tone of evident relief: ‘Clothing can be found, Salvo. Clothing I am told is not a problem.’
Alerted by his use of the Passive Voice, I would have liked to enquire who they were who were offering me this totally unprecedented bonus instead of the modest retainer plus hours which normally is all you get for the honour of protecting your country, but a natural deference restrained me, which with Mr Anderson it usually did.
‘I’m due in the High Court on Monday, Mr Anderson. It’s a big case,’ I pleaded. And donning my uxorial hat for the third and final time, ‘I mean, what do I tell my wife?’
‘A replacement has already been found for you, Salvo, and the High Court is comfortable with the new arrangements, thank you.’ He paused, and when Mr Anderson pauses, you pause too. ‘Regarding your wife, you may say that a long-standing corporate client requires your services as a matter of urgency, and you cannot afford to disappoint them.’
‘Right, sir. Understood.’
‘Further explanations will tie you in knots, so do not on any account attempt one. That’s the whole caboosh you’re wearing, is it? Shiny shoes, dress shirt, the lot?’
Through the swirling mists of my perplexity I admitted that it was indeed the whole caboosh.
‘Why am I not hearing inane party chatter in the background?’
I explained that I had removed myself to a corridor in order to take his call.
‘Do you have a separate exit within your reach?’
A descending staircase lay open at my feet, and amid my confusion I must have said as much.
‘Then do not return to the party. When you emerge onto the street, look to your left and you will see a blue Mondeo parked outside a betting shop. Last three letters of the registration LTU, white driver name of Fred. What size shoes do you take?’
No man on earth forgets his own shoe size, yet I had to reach deep into my memory to retrieve it. Nine.
‘Would that be a wide fitting or slim?’
Wide, sir, I said. I might have added that Brother Michael used to say I had an African’s feet, but I didn’t. My mind was not with Brother Michael or my feet, African or other. Neither was it with Mr Anderson’s mission of vital national importance, keen though I was, as ever, to be of service to my Queen and country. It was telling me that out of a clear Heaven I was being offered the key to my escape, plus a much needed decompression chamber providing two days of remunerative work and two nights of solitary meditation in a de luxe hotel while I pieced together my displaced universe. In the process of extricating my cellphone from the inner pocket of my dinner jacket and placing it against my ear, I had inhaled the reheated body odours of a black African hospital nurse named Hannah with whom I had been making unbridled love commencing shortly after 11 p.m. British Summer Time of the night before, and continuing up to the moment of my departure one hour and thirty-five minutes ago, which in my haste to arrive at Penelope’s party on time I had failed to wash off.
Excerpted from The Mission Song by John le Carré. Copyright © 2006 by John le Carré. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.