The wine was okay although I think I’ll save the other bottle for a warm summer evening that beckons the diner outside. Today I’m going to the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham to see Arcadia by Tom Stoppard and that’s quite a schlep from here so, as I promised to post today the passage that followed from the one I posted yesterday, I’d better get on with it. To recap, these offcuts are passages that, when I wrote them, I expected to appear in the final, published, novel but which for one reason or another did not last the course. When we left it yesterday, Ted was being interrogated by a chat show host about the events in Ephesus that resulted in the death at his hands of two Turks. Now, as they say, read on…
They’re waiting for him when he comes back from viewing the mosaics, though how he was supposed to look at mosaics in the dark is beyond him. He doesn’t like what he sees.
Max is sitting on a fallen pillar, his head in his hands. One of the two men stands silently, a gun trained on Max; the other is shouting at him. The woman sits a little apart, looking away towards where the sea is, though she certainly can’t see it.
‘Ridiculous,’ the man is shouting. He’s shouting in French, though it’s clear from the taxi ride that Max speaks Turkish. Later, Ted will wish he’d noticed that. ‘For two of the finest artefacts ever found in this country, you want to pay me twenty thousand francs. Twenty thousand francs! You insult me, you insult my merchandise, you insult my country!’
He makes a show of noticing Ted’s approach. ‘And what about you, Monsieur? Do you have money? Or must we kill both of you? Eh? And keep the heads and the twenty thousand francs?’
The gunman has brought his pistol round to point squarely at Ted’s chest. A terrible mistake.
‘Yes,’ says Ted, opening his leather bag. ‘I have money. Calm down.’ And he reaches into the bag, slips the safety off his gun, brings it out and shoots the man holding the revolver. Straight through the heart. Dead.
Instant turmoil. The man demanding money is backing away, screaming in panic. Screaming in Turkish which, unfortunately, Ted does not understand. Ted’s shooting arm is held straight out. It swings in a graceful arc, coming to rest on the screaming man, who now holds out his arms in supplication. That he is begging for his life is clear.
Maxim is on his feet, holding out both hands towards Ted. ‘Ted. No. You don’t understand. It was just…’
But Ted has pulled the trigger and the screaming man is silenced. In the centre of his forehead is a neat hole. The one in the back of his head is somewhat less immaculate.
‘You’d done the wrong thing?’ says Dolan.
‘By their lights, maybe. Not by mine. You point a gun at me, you’d better know I’ll shoot you if I get the chance.’
‘Which is what you told Max.’
‘Sure is. And Ibrahim, when he identified himself.’
‘How did you get back to the boat?’
‘Same way as we’d come. In the taxi.’
‘Wasn’t the driver scared?’
‘Shaking like a leaf.’
Ted sits in front this time, his gun pressed into the driver’s ribs. It is now completely dark outside and the headlights on the dusty white road pick out no more people than on the way in. Max and the woman are in the back.
‘Why are we taking her?’ asks Ted.
Max is trembling almost as badly as the driver. Feeling good as he is, Ted still doesn’t fail to notice that the woman’s manner suggests anger and contempt more than fear.
‘Because I’m what you came for,’ she says.
Max is trying to shut her up but she’s in no mood to listen to him. ‘You thought it was the heads, maybe? Worthless bits of stone? You thought they brought you all this way for that? It was for me. Imbecile.’
Ted says, ‘And who are they?’
To the woman, the question isn’t worth bothering with. Max simply shakes his head.
‘Suppose,’ says Ted, ‘I leave the pair of you here and sail off without you. How would you deal with that? How would you explain the two bodies back there when the sun comes up tomorrow?’
Max shakes his head. ‘Ibrahim would not let you.’
‘Ibrahim? Ibrahim is with you?’
Max looks very tired. ‘We put him into your boat. You had hired someone else.’
Ted remembers. ‘That’s right. I had.’
‘And he was suddenly unavailable. And Ibrahim came to see you.’
‘You sent him? For what? For this?’
‘Don’t get angry, please, Ted.’
‘Angry? I’m fucking furious. You…’
‘Ted. When you are angry you are even more dangerous than when you are calm. Listen to me, please. The DGSE identified you as a prospect. We saw you as someone we could work with.’
The woman snorts. Ted looks at her. She says, ‘We, the man says. We.’
‘Isabelle,’ Max starts, but she’s in no mood for interruptions.
‘Maxim is not “We,” Monsieur Bailey,’ she says. I am “We.” Ibrahim is “We.” Maxim is a dilettante, an amateur. A jolly war with the Free French and he thinks himself a master spy. Maxim is someone we use to arrange things.’
The taxi is approaching the harbour. ‘So,’ Ted says. ‘Since you are the real thing, tell me what I need to know.’
‘You need to know nothing,’ she spits. ‘You are a bigger fool than Max.’ She speaks in quick Turkish to the driver, who stops the car with a jerk. ‘We will walk from here,’ she says.
As they walk away, Ted turns to look back at the driver. He is mopping his brow, his shoulders heaving. Ted could swear there are tears on his cheeks. Ted points his gun at the front near-side tyre and blows a hole in it. The woman curses him beneath her breath.
Ibrahim’s eyes rest unblinking on Ted as Isabelle speaks to him in rapid Arabic. How old is Ibrahim? Ted has never asked himself the question before. Could be twenty, could be forty. The friendly, slightly obsequious smile Ted is used to is no longer in place, but nor is there any unfriendliness. In the tales of cowboys and Indians Ted read as a child, the braves’ faces were often described as impassive, but impassive would be the wrong word here. Ibrahim isn’t hostile and he isn’t sympathetic. He is merely absorbing information, juggling plans, improvising.
In his melodically accented French, he says to Ted, ‘We had better go now, Monsieur. They will be looking for us in the morning and we should be far from here.’
There is a light in the immigration and customs men’s cabin, but no-one comes out to watch the boat slip quietly out of the bay.
‘They are concerned with people coming into the country,’ Ibrahim says. ‘Not with those who leave. They may pay a heavy price tomorrow.’
In open water, Ted gives the boat more power. He does not need to be told that Istanbul is off the itinerary. The boat moves south, a strong wake trailing behind as they leave Turkish for Greek waters and head for the open Mediterranean. Max is silent. He will not speak another word to Ted during the voyage.
Through the long night, Ted keeps the strap of the leather bag with the gun in it wrapped around his wrist. Ibrahim offers to take over at the helm, but Ted has no interest in sleep. He does not want to be left to swim home. The Arab brews coffee and the two men drink it companionably side by side as the boat cuts through the warm, dark water. Ted offers Ibrahim a cigarette, lights one for himself.
‘You feel betrayed?’ Ibrahim asks.
‘Betrayal is what I do,’ says Ibrahim. ‘I am an Arab, and I work for the country that oppresses my people.’
‘You are a spy?’
‘I do not like that word.’
‘The woman. Isabelle. Why is she so important?’
‘You have heard her story, I think.’
‘Oh, yes, I have heard her story.’
‘It will serve. Our stories become the truth. Until we need new ones.’
‘How can you live like that?’
Ibrahim looks at him and smiles.
‘You think I am the same?’ asks Ted.
‘Do you say you are not?’
It is a few hours later, with the sun rising towards its zenith and the day hot on their faces. Ted asks Ibrahim, ‘Why did they do it like this? Why all the nonsense with the heads? Why not just sail in, pick her up and get out?’
Ibrahim smiles. ‘To complicate. They must complicate. What you suggest is simple and these people do not like simple. They make problems where no problem exists. So they ask, how will you react if they say you come to Turkey to pick up a passenger? You will want to know who she is, and why they want her. No, no, they think. Monsieur Bailey is a criminal, so we give him something a criminal will understand. Theft. The stealing of things that can be sold.’
‘Why did they need me at all? They must have boats of their own.’
‘Something might go wrong. Turkey is a friendly country. You must not be seen to kidnap people from a friendly country. Maxim is a freelance and disposable.’
‘But you’re here.’
‘I am an Arab and therefore also disposable. Also the Turks are proud people. Proud as only a country that has had a great empire and now is nothing can be proud. You are an English. You will understand that, I think.’
‘What will happen to these two now?’
‘Monsieur Maxim, he will be in trouble. This was his plan. Now two Turkish men are dead, and they were ours. They will never use him again. The money they pay him they will cease to pay him. He will be unhappy. He will blame you. You should watch out for him.’
‘What did she do? Nothing.’
Ibrahim smiles. ‘You will be all right, Monsieur. I will see to it.’
Now that I’m in the mood after Offcuts and Offcuts (2), here is another passage that was once part of When the Darkness Comes but is so no longer. I didn’t have a problem with it; it was simply that the book had become so damn long, bits of it had to go and I chose those that could be considered self-contained.
Ted loves sailing, if being driven by a powerful motor can be called sailing. Maxim makes omelettes for lunch; they drink mineral water with them, because Ted has a no alcohol while at sea rule. They spend the evening in Mgarr Harbour on Gozo, where Ibrahim stays on the boat while Ted and Maxim dine ashore on Spagetti ai Frutta di Mare. The Gozo wine is good, though Maxim the Frenchman refuses to say so, the night is peaceful and they breakfast next morning on bread, coffee and sweet cakes.
The second day they dock at Crete; and after a late breakfast and an early lunch on shore they turn north and start picking their way between the islands that dot the whole waterway. As the afternoon sun begins to descend towards the sea, Maxim suggests stopping for the night in Kusadasi.
‘You want to reach Istanbul tomorrow?’ asks Ted.
‘We do not have time to arrive there today. And it is a busy harbour. Not the best place to navigate in the dark. And you have never seen Ephesus, I think.’
‘I won’t now. Ephesus Harbour is dry. The town is miles from the sea.’
Maxim glances at him. ‘I thought you did not know this area.’
‘I can read a chart.’
‘There are taxis.’
Ted shrugs. As far as he’s concerned, they’re here for the pleasure of the trip.
Customs come aboard and make a perfunctory examination. A polite man in an Immigration Officer’s shirt and an old pair of yellow trousers, gathered at the ankles, checks their passports. Then, once again, Ted and Maxim go ashore while Ibrahim stays with the boat.
Ted suspects that Maxim thinks him a fool, but he is not a complete idiot. Before leaving the boat, he takes the gun from its hiding place and slips it into the little leather handbag in which he carries his passport and some of his money. He wraps the strap negligently around his left wrist, carrying it as though it had no importance at all.
The Frenchman, too, carries a bag — in his case, a crocodile document case.
As Maxim said, there are taxis. This one is clearly waiting for them.
They go through some polite business about seating arrangements, but Ted makes sure Max sits up front with the driver, where he can see them both. He slips his hand into his leather bag and sees the driver’s eyes on him in the rear view mirror. Ted makes a show of taking out his passport and examining the sticker the Immigration man has put there. The driver looks away. He says something briefly to Maxim. Maxim, as briefly, replies. The conversation is not in French, and Ted does not understand it.
It isn’t far to Ephesus, but the road is poor and the journey takes half an hour. They see almost no-one on the way.
They park just outside the town and walk in. Ted, manoeuvring to keep himself on the right hand of the other two, sees Maxim smile.
‘Once,’ says Maxim, ‘there were three hundred and fifty thousand people here. How many people in your home town, Ted?’
‘About the same.’
‘And now look at it.’
‘Ephesus. This is what you get from living at a crossroads. You are lucky, you English, to be stuck out on a bunch of islands no-one wants. Did you know Paul wrote to the Corinthians from here?’
Ted is looking at the Odeon, a ruin of burnt clay with steep terraces and surrounded by clapped out buildings. ‘Looks like Roker Park to me.’
‘They have earthquakes here,’ says Max. ‘Many earthquakes. The Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. You know what is there now? One pillar. Two, maybe. A few stones scattered. Grass. Scrub. Nothing.’
‘So why are we here?’
‘The Hittites were here. The Greeks were here. The Romans were here. This was the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire. Paul lived here, John lived here. They claim the Virgin Mary lived here, after her Son was put to death.’
‘But why are we here?’
‘Do you know they have camel wrestling in Ephesus? Still, today?’
‘Have we come to watch?’
‘No, no. The wrestling is in winter.’
‘Men wrestle camels?’
‘They would be killed, Ted. No, no, the camels wrestle. Male camels. They make a big show of it. Dress the camels up. Music. A march through the streets. They find a female in heat and parade her in front of two males. Then the males wrestle for the right to mount her.’
‘Ah. It’s more like Newcastle than I thought.’
‘And they spit, and piss backwards. So getting close is not a good idea.’
‘Even more like home. Why are we here, Maxim?’
‘I thought I might take a look at some antiquities while we are in Turkey.’
‘You can pick up a head, or a carving, for a good price. Sell it in Paris for three, four times what we pay the locals.’
‘Is that legal?’
‘Do you care?’
‘I’d like to know.’
‘It is completely legal, so long as one has a certificate issued by a museum.’
‘Which, of course, we will.’
Max smiled. ‘This is the State Agora.’
‘Not very impressive.’
‘Two thousand years ago, it would have been a bustling courtyard. There were porticoes down two sides like cloisters, with columns supporting terra cotta roofs.’
‘The columns seem to have collapsed.’ Ted waits for Max to mention the three people, two men and a woman, sitting in the gathering dark on broken stone shafts. They give every appearance of waiting for someone.
Max points away from the three. ‘That is the Street of Curetes. It leads to the Fountain of Trajan, which you can still see though it’s dry, and the Temple of Hadrian. Nice friezes. And the street has some lovely mosaics. Why don’t you take a walk down there while I talk to my friends?’
‘You don’t want me with you?’
Max smiles. ‘Don’t miss the mosaics. They’re worth the detour.’
That passage is followed by the one I reproduced in Offcuts (2) but we return to Turkkey here:
‘What do you want to do?’ asks Dolan when my glass has been refilled. ‘Do you want to finish the story? In whatever time you’ve got left? Or are you ready to go? Let that poor girl up? Face the music?’
I steady myself with a swig of champagne. The poor girl can fend for herself. Facing the music is the last thing on my mind.
‘It was all about the woman,’ I say.
‘When we reached Ephesus, remember? There were two men and a woman waiting for Max. It was all about the woman. The antiquities were a smokescreen. The idea was that we’d bring back a couple of stone heads. They had the museum certificates all ready for us. I was to believe that the certificates were fakes and the heads were hugely valuable. And they’d persuade me to bring the woman along for the ride home. But, actually, the heads were just heads, bits of stone. It was the woman they wanted to get out.’
‘The DGSE. Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure. The General Directorate for External Security.’
‘If intelligence is the word we’re looking for. Never overestimate these guys, Barry. If you want to know how bright a country’s intelligence services are, form a view on the average IQ of their ordinary police force. Chances are, the IQ of the secret guys won’t be more than eighty per cent of that. What you do get, even more than with the police, is every kind of psychosis, every shade of mental infirmity, every possible form of delusion. And all the sociopathic and just plain barmy behaviour that goes with those things. And, above all else, a conviction that only they are in the know, only they have the big picture, and everyone else must help make their loony plans come true.’
‘So who was this woman?’
‘An employee of the DGSE.’
‘A French spy.’
‘If you want to give her that much glamour. She was no Mata Hari, believe me. The rather plump, rather plain French mistress of a Turkish diplomat who must have needed his eyes testing. And his sense of smell. She’d been happily sending back information about Turkey’s plans for whatever it is Turkey makes plans about, and they’d cottoned on to her. The Frogs needed to get her out before she disappeared.’
‘How do you know all this?’
Dolan sighs. ‘As I said before, it’s your time you’re wasting.’
‘Did you ever think of becoming a teacher, Barry?’
‘Why are you doing this? You’re dying, as you keep telling us, and still you fence with me as though you had all the time in the world.’
‘Yes, all right. I know all this because this is what Maxim and Ibrahim told me after I’d shot the two Turks.’
‘You shot the two Turks.’
‘So when I say I don’t know it, what I mean is it was told to me by people whose word was hardly reliable. Intelligence people.’
‘Ibrahim and Max were with French intelligence.’
‘Are you going to repeat everything I say? See, I’ve spent a large part of my life among criminals. And, by and large, criminals didn’t lie to me. They shot at me, they tried to rob me, but they rarely lied to me. They knew what they wanted, they said what it was and they went after it. But then I got involved with people whose job was keeping the world safe for democracy and they never said a true word if they could say a false one.’
‘Tell me why you shot the two Turks.’
‘Well, that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.’
There’s more, but it’s dinner time and I am about to open a bottle of rosé vinho verde (how can a wine be pink and green at the same time?) which is something I’ve never tried before — it came in a bin ends surprise case from Vineyards Direct — so I’ll leave this here and post the rest — probably tomorrow — as Offcuts (4).
Continuing the theme (in Offcuts) of passages that never made the final book, I’ve been working on When the Darkness Comes for a long time now and I really don’t know when I’ll be ready to let it go to print, but this has been in it from the start and beta reader after beta reader has asked me the same questions. Why is this here? What does it add to the story? Where does it get us? And they’re right; this is a perfect example of what editors mean when they tell writers to “kill your darlings”. So — and not without regret — it’s gone. Cut. Rejected. I don’t want it to disappear altogether, though — so here it is:
They’re getting into an elevator. Ted and the dwarf and King Tut. The Lizard stands back, watching them go. But something’s wrong. The building they’re supposed to be going up is next door. This lift is on the front of a tower that stands beside the building. It’s a high tower and a high building, but they’re not connected. How are they going to get across at the top?
There’s worse. The lift is one of those that run up the outside, with glass walls so you can see the people and the traffic grow smaller as you ascend, and the landscape grow wider. Ted hates these. He was in one and when it reached the top he was on his knees, facing inwards, eyes closed. Sobbing. They’d seen it before, apparently. They brought him out in a service lift inside the building. Kept telling him not to feel embarrassed, that it took some people that way. He did, though. Feel embarrassed.
He’s not good at heights.
He doesn’t like crowds, either, and there is a crowd now and it’s pushing forward.
What terrifies Ted, leaving the elevator to one side, what really leaves him wanting to lie on the floor again and scream, is: what happens at the top? If the tower isn’t connected to the building, how will he get from one to the other? And will he have to look down? And will he be able to stop himself?
He won’t make it. He knows that, so he doesn’t want to try. He’s struggling not to get into the elevator, but the crowd is enormous and it’s pushing and bustling and carrying him in there whether he wants to or not. The dwarf has him by the wrist and Tut is bobbing around a few rows back, taking care to keep him in sight.
How can all these people fit into one lift? And who are they? And why is Ted going where they’re going? He doesn’t know them. Doesn’t think he knows them.
And now the lift is climbing, shooting up the outside of the tower at increasing speed. The car is full of people eating and drinking, sitting at nicely linened tables, crisp starched napery, silver bowls, cut glass. Eating and drinking. Attentive waiting staff. Red wine, fizzy water, rare beef. There’s a cigar somewhere. Buzz of conversation. And Ted. He should be at ease in this environment. Man of the world, in his element in pampered luxe. Instead he’s screaming bloody blue murder. And no-one’s looking at him.
How is he going to get across?
Oh, help him, Mother.
They’re there. At the top of the tower. The crowd has strolled out and across, into the building next door. How? How did they cross? How the hell should Ted know? He couldn’t watch. They’re gone. What’s left is people he was at school with, in the Scouts with, played cricket with. How, why, he doesn’t know. And there, in the corner, trying to be invisible but never taking his eyes off Ted, is King Tut. Knowing that he’s really Ras Tafar, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia should reduce the fear of seeing him, but it doesn’t. If anything, it makes it worse. The dwarf stands in the corner by the buttons.
The others are crossing now, all but the dwarf and Tut, who seems to be trying to creep a little closer to Ted, and Ted can’t go with them. They’re calling him, encouraging him, cajoling. ‘Come on, Ted. It’s fine, it’s nothing. Just step over.’
But it isn’t fine and it isn’t nothing. It’s a drop of hundreds of stories, thousands of feet, higher than the London Stock Exchange or the Gherkin, higher than the Empire State, higher than the Twin Towers of the World Trade Building.
And look what happened to them.
‘Come on, Ted.’ And he can’t. Because he knows they’re wrong. They’ve crossed over and for them maybe it really was easy but Ted can’t do it. He can’t. He’s going to have to stay here. He lies on the floor. ‘I’ll stay in here. I’ll go back down.’
‘Come on, Ted.’
‘You can’t go down, Ted. The lift won’t start till you get out.’
‘For God’s sake, Ted, be a man.’And he’s sobbing as though his little heart will break. Help me, Mother. Help me. Don’t leave me stranded here.
And something strange has happened. Because before there was just the tower and the building and nothing between except blue sky and puffy white clouds. And now there’s a platform half way across. It’s got cloud all around it, so he can’t see where it goes, whether it’s standing on the ground or what, but it’s there and it looks solid enough.
It should help, there being a platform half way. But it doesn’t. It makes it all worse.
‘Stand up, Ted. Take a step onto the platform. Then hold out your hands and we’ll haul you across. Safe as houses. Come on, Ted.’
Stand up. The man’s an idiot. Always was, even as a child. He can’t stand up.
‘We’re going to have to go, Ted. We can’t wait for ever. We’re going, Ted.’
‘Ted! For fuck’s sake, get on your fucking feet and step onto that fucking platform.’
Ted’s the boy. Oh, Ted’s the kiddy, all right. The athlete, hotshot cricketer who can’t stand up for fear of falling. The master of a French whore, killer of villains and police alike who’s too terrified by what he might see to open his eyes.
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.
Ted is the fellow of infinite jest.
What does my gorge rims at it mean? He probably couldn’t write that line today. God, there’s some dirty bastards around. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
He hauls himself to his knees.
‘That’s it. That’s it, Ted. Now. Over!’
He’s lying face down on the platform. If he’d thought he was scared before, he knew nothing. This is fear. This is cold terror.
He can’t go forward and he can’t go back. The lift has gone, taking the dwarf with it. Or maybe that should be the other way round. The outer door is still open, but all that’s there now is an open shaft, waiting for Ted to fall down it. There’s no-one here but him and Tut, who crossed with him and is now so close he’s almost touching Ted’s spread-out leg.
He daren’t look down. Look down? He daren’t even open his eyes. How are they going to get him out of this? How can they send a rescue crew here? There’s no ladder in the world long enough, he knows that, and he couldn’t go down it anyway. Helicopter? How would they pick him up? Clinging to a net over that drop? I don’t think so, pal.
He can’t go forward and he can’t go back and they can’t pick him off. There’s no way out. It’s just him and Tut and the tower and the clouds and the wind. He hadn’t noticed the wind. It isn’t much, but it’s there. Probably the sound of people drowned it out before. The people have gone.
He and Tut are alone.
This interview took place at the Indie Author Fair in Chorleywood last year. I’m delighted with the way Ingram have cut and presented it; the only objection I have is that they seem to have made my waistline look big and I can’t imagine how that happened 🙂
Watch (and listen to) it here:
A Just and Upright Man was shortlisted for the Historical Novel Society’s 2015 Indie Award. I was so pleased when I heard that and I really didn’t expect to go further — didn’t expect to win — because I could see from the shortlist that I was up against some stiff competition. There were some damn good books there by some damn fine writers.
And now I know that I haven’t won, and even though that was the result I expected — and even though I know I did really well just to get this far — I’m not going to pretend that there wasn’t just a touch of disappointment there, too. I’m a salesman, and you don’t survive 40+ years in that profession unless you’re competitive. I’d rather win than lose.
Today, though, I was Helen Hollick’s Tuesday Talk Guest and I’m so delighted with the way she’s turned it out that I feel good. You can read it here; it’s more than compensated for the earlier bad news.