His pain was vast. But at least it was finite. Sharp-edged waves of agony climaxed in intensity until his body convulsed and his mind was awash. Then, just before madness, the crests broke and swirled over his limen of consciousness, and he escaped into oblivion.
But always he emerged again from the delirium, cold and perspiring, weaker than before, and more frightened.
A crisp wind fluted through the arches of the belfry in which he was prisoner and drove his tears horizontally back to his temples. During troughs of awareness between crises of pain, his mind cleared, and he was bewildered by his reactions to impending death. Matthew Parnell-Greene ("Uranus" in the planet-code of the counterespionage agency that employed him) had always known that violent death was a very real alternative to retirement in his line of work. He was not physically brave—his imagination was too active for that—so he had sought to mute his fear by callusing that imagination. He had forced himself to rehearse being shot, being knifed, taking a faceful of cyanide gas from a tube concealed in a folded newspaper, being poisoned—his urbane flair always insisting upon the poison being in exotic foods consumed at really good restaurants. And he had attempted to toughen his tender imagination by abrading it with anticipations of the more disgusting alternatives. He had been drowned in a bathtub; he had been suffocated, his face blue and his eyes bulging within a polyethylene bag; air had been injected into his heart. Always he had died well, with a certain dignity, not struggling dumbly against impossible odds. He had imagined pain, but the end had always come quickly. He had long ago realized that he could not withstand torture and had decided he would cooperate fully with his questioners, should it come to that.
Fear, pain, anger, even self-pity had been anticipated so often that they held no more dread than he could stand. But his anxious fantasies had not prepared him for the emotion that now overwhelmed his mind: disgust. Disgust was bitter in the back of his throat. Disgust curled the corners of his mouth and dilated his nostrils. When they found him, he would be unsightly, revolting. The thought of it embarrassed him intensely.
In the two hours since a watery dawn had made London visible below him, Parnell-Greene's eyes had dimmed many times, with each fresh crisis of pain that carried him over the brink of unconsciousness as some membrane inside him ripped through, sending waves of shock through his body.
How long had he been there? Six hours? Half his life? His existence seemed divided into two parts, one containing forty-seven active, colorful years; the other, six hours of pain. And it was the second half that really mattered.
He remembered them bringing him to St. Martin's. Although he had been heavily drugged, it was all perfectly lucid. The drugs had been pleasant, euphoric; they had sapped his will, but he remembered everything. Two of them had brought him. They had stood on either side of him because he was unsteady on his feet. He had sat for a time with one of them—The Mute—in a back pew, while the other went up to the belfry to see that the apparatus was in place. He remembered the oaken contribution box with its notice:
Contributions to keep this church always open and to maintain its services
They had led him up the winding metal staircase and out onto the dark windy platform of the belfry. And then they had . . . and then they . . . Parnell-Greene wept at the sadness of it.
He sobbed, and that was a mistake. The convulsion ruptured something inside, pain clawed through his body and throbbed in his head. He fainted.
The streets below the church streamed with people. Hundreds gushed up Villiers Street and poured from Charing Cross Station, all hurrying toward work or standing with turgid obedience in queues, waiting to crowd into red double-decker buses, bodies touching, eyes assiduously averted. Escalators spewed anonymities from the undergrounds: young office men, bareheaded and red-eyed; cloth-capped laborers, sullen and stunned with lives of monotony; shopgirls and secretaries, miniskirted despite the season, their hands, faces, and legs ruddy and chapped; older women on the prowl for bargains, waddling through the press, heavy objects in their dangling string bags a threat to passing shins.
Any one of them might have seen Parnell-Greene's huddled silhouette in the arch of the belfry, but no one looked up. In the automaton way of British workers, their chins were sunk in their collars, their minds involute.
Perspiration was cold on his forehead when he returned to consciousness. He breathed carefully, his mouth wide open so as not to make a movement. At last, his tightly bound arms were numb, and that was a blessing. For the first hour or so, the loss of circulation had caused a regular dull ache that was somehow more wearing than the irregular ecstasies of agony when something tore within him.
He did not shout for help. He had tried that at first, but no one could hear his feeble voice from the height of the belfry, and each attempt had been rewarded with a bursting sac of liquid pain.
Slowly, the numbing of his overloaded nerves came into balance with this new level of agony, and neutralized it. He knew that more exquisite levels of pain would come, but it was no longer an animate enemy he might get by the throat and crush, and crush! His pain and his life had welded into one. They would always be together now. When there was no longer pain, there would no longer be life.
He felt very cold, and very sad.
He looked out, across the river, over the bulk of the Charing Cross Hotel. There were the elements of new London. The in-articulate, utilitarian bulk of the Royal Festival Hall. The addled architecture of Queen Elizabeth Hall, a compromise between a penal institution and a space station. New London. Economical and unmerciful architecture. And beyond, cubes of aluminum and glass persuaded the skyline of London to imitate Chicago. Some of the bloodless hulks stood unfinished, victims of continual strikes. Above these ugly heaps, giant construction cranes lurked, dinosaur skeletons poised to feed on huge blocks of salt.
Distressed, he turned his eyes away. So much of it was going! Even the facades temporarily spared from Progress were masked by scaffolding and canvas as they were being steamed and scrubbed to rid them of the character of patina.
It was all going.
He felt liquid dripping down his legs. And not only blood, he realized with despair. Revolting. Disgusting.
A bit of sun broke through the low layers of zinc cloud. He began to feel warm. Light. As though he were floating. It would be good to be weightless. Merciful numbness began to spread upward. His throat thickened. He was so tired.
The whir and clatter of machinery tugged him back to consciousness. The clapper of the great bell was grinding back against its spring, and it hovered for a second before it shot forward. The belfry roared and vibrated! The apparatus shook violently. The pain was pyrotechnic as everything within him burst!
Now Parnell-Greene screamed.
That evening the facts were carried by the London newspapers, each reflecting the taste of its readership:
MAN IMPALED IN ST. MARTIN'S-IN-THE-FIELDS
OPPOSITION QUESTIONS SECURITY OF NATIONAL BELFRIES
BELL RINGER INVESTIGATES THUD!
EARLY CHURCHGOER GETS THE POINT!
BBC 2 interrupted its year-long series on the development of the viola da gamba for a special broadcast in which three university dons outlined the uses of torture in general and impalement in particular in the Western world. Then a panel of experts discussed the implications of this latest impalement on the eve of Britain's entry into the Common Market. Finally, a woman Labour MP made the point that this literal impalement had shocked and sickened the nation, while it remained perfectly indifferent to the figurative impalement of womanhood on the phallus of male chauvinism over the years, which, after all, was . . .
From the Trade Paperback edition.