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The Lost American
By Brian Freemantle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Brian Freemantle
All rights reserved.
Housework had become important, a time-filling ritual, and Ann moved dutifully through the apartment, vacuuming carpets already vacuumed, tidying things already tidied and dusting where no dust had had time to collect, from the previous day. She tried to concentrate upon what she was doing but by now the ritual had become mechanical as well as dutiful, like so much else. She'd expected the uncertainty, of course: the doubts even. For there to have been any other reaction, after what had happened and where they were, would have been more unsettling than the feelings she now had, because it would have been unnatural. But it should have gone by now. Lessened at least. Not got worse. She stopped the vacuum abruptly, the movement a physical correction. Only some things seemed to have got worse. To think everything had would be to exaggerate and it would be wrong – dangerous – to exaggerate: certainly not the way to settle and adjust, imagining things to be worse than they really were. The hostility had definitely gone, from the other wives. Eddie insisted that it had never existed in the first place, dismissing the impression as her confused response to the trauma of the divorce and the reaction of her family and the abruptness of the Moscow posting, but Ann knew she wasn't confused. They had been hostile. She'd rationalised the attitude, even understood it, now she'd lived in Moscow. The Western diplomatic community in the Soviet capital was an enclosed, insular and – her strong opinion – claustrophobic existence, the same faces at the same receptions and parties with the same small-talk and the same gossip. She'd been a subject of that gossip – maybe she still was, because not everyone had come round and was friendly now – the woman half her husband's age who'd wrecked a happy marriage. And if she'd done it once, she could do it again. Especially in the unnatural circumstances of where they were and how they lived, crammed together in constant contact. Bloody hypocrites. She'd seen the flirtations and guessed the affairs and those she hadn't guessed had soon been reported, on the gossip-mill. At least she and Eddie had been honest. Refused to lie and confronted all the consequences: the bitterness and the recriminations and the nastiness – God, the nastiness! – which was more than any of them were doing.
Ann abandoned the unnecessary dusting, sitting in a chair – forward, on the edge, not relaxed – arriving at another ritual, the increasing (daily almost) reflection of what that honesty had cost. She told Eddie and Eddie told her that each had expected to happen what had happened but she knew that wasn't true. She certainly hadn't anticipated her family's reaction. She knew they'd be upset, obviously – they couldn't be anything else. But she'd thought they would have come round to accepting the situation by now, not gone on behaving like some parody of Victorian rectitude, practically refusing any longer to acknowledge her existence. Whenever her mother wrote, which was only ever in response to her letters, never initiating any correspondence herself, there was always the conclusion involving her father – 'Daddy sends his regards' – but Ann knew that was a lie and that her father had done nothing of the sort. And what father sent his regards, for God's sake! It wasn't a parody of Victorian rectitude: it was Victorian rectitude. And it was hurtful and unnecessary and cruel and was one of the reasons – one of the main reasons – why she was so miserable.
She looked across the room at the drinks tray and then at her watch and then at the drinks tray again and decided against it, pleased at her control. Quite a lot of the women started cocktails at four, but she hadn't, not yet. And neither would she, Ann determined. That would be giving in and she didn't give in. She hadn't given in to her family nor to the unpleasantness of Eddie's divorce ... Ann stopped, examining the word. Had Eddie's divorce been unpleasant? Of course it had, on the surface. The tight-lipped meetings with the lawyers and the financial arrangements and the division of property, the dismantling of years together. But there hadn't been from Ruth anything like the sort of reaction that had come from her family. And from Ruth it could have been expected. She was, after all, the abandoned wife, saddled with two bewildered sons and an empty house and empty memories, wondering where she went wrong which wasn't a question for her, because Ruth hadn't gone wrong anywhere. She hadn't had affairs and she hadn't drank and she hadn't failed and she hadn't, when Eddie announced he'd fallen in love with someone else, railed against him or fought him or hated him. Eddie said he'd imagined her behaving like that, because that was the sort of woman Ruth was, but Ann didn't believe that, either. She was surprised – another uncertainty – and she knew Eddie was, as well. No sneers and no reproaches. It was Ruth who initiated the letters, more often than not: always chatty, always friendly. And always 'love to Ann'. The discarded wife could send love to the woman who had replaced her and the best her father could manage was regards and that a lie, Ann thought bitterly.
She returned, to the beginning of the reflection. The honesty had cost a lot, for them both. So had it been worth it? Another part of the ritual. Increasing, too. Of course it had been worth it, she decided, in familiar reassurance. She loved Eddie as much – more – as she ever had and she knew he loved her. It was just Moscow. If it been any other posting to any other embassy, somewhere where they could have had outside friends and outside interests and driven a hundred miles out into the country on Sundays, if they'd felt like it, then Ann was positive everything would have been all right. She made another mental pause. Everything was all right, between her and Eddie. Which was all that mattered. Moscow was important to Eddie's career, vitally so. All she had to do was endure it and be as philosophical about it as she could and ignore her bloody stupid family, like they were ignoring her, and wait until the next posting. She supposed Langley was a possibility, after Moscow. Ann decided she'd like that. Eddie was almost certain to be upgraded: as high as G-15 was a possibility because he had a lot of experience and was respected because of it. If he got G-15 they'd probably be able to afford something in Georgetown, the district of Washington she liked best. But maybe not, with the support he paid Ruth and the kids. If not Georgetown, Alexandria then. She liked that almost as much. It would be wonderful to be in Washington. There'd be concerts and plays at the Kennedy Centre. And New York was only an hour away on the shuttle so they could see the Broadway shows whenever they wanted. And drive out into the country whenever they wanted to go and out to restaurants and not have to wait three hours for service and make friends with people they wanted to be friendly with, not those forced upon them by some restricted, hemmed-in environment. Moscow was an unnatural existence so it automatically followed that she should feel unnatural in it. Endure it, until the next posting, she thought again; that's all she had to do.
It was gone five before she took the first drink, while she was preparing dinner and she made it last until Eddie came home, promptly at six, which was another ritual. She was waiting, directly inside the apartment entrance. He kissed her and held her tightly and she held him tightly back, needing his closeness. He did love her and she loved him. Just endure it, she thought.
Ann fixed his drink and made another for herself and said, 'Steak. That OK?' At least they were able to eat well, with access to the embassy concessions.
'Wait until I can teach you how to cook them outside.' Eddie Blair was a tall, heavy man of casual, almost slow, movements. He spoke slowly, too, the Texas accent pronounced. The slowness and the frequent references to cook-outs and range riding and the tendency to dress in jeans and sports shirts for the more casual parties conveyed to some the impression of country-boy stolidness, which was intentionally misleading. Blair was one of the most highly regarded foreign service officers within the Central Intelligence Agency, already at supervisor rank.
'I'm looking forward to it,' said Ann, honestly. 'How was your day?'
He grimaced. 'Average. Yours?'
'Average,' she said. Liar, she thought. She said, 'Betty Harrison called, suggesting lunch. But I said no.'
'Why not?' said Blair.
Because I lunched with her yesterday and two days before that and I'm lunching with her tomorrow, thought Ann. She said, 'I was busy, here in the apartment.'
'Nothing for you in the bag,' he said. All their overseas correspondence arrived in the diplomatic pouch.
'I wasn't expecting anything,' she said. Father sends his regards, she thought. 'You?' she said.
Blair reached into his briefcase and took out the letter, still sealed. 'From Ruth,' he said, unnecessarily.
'Let's open it,' said Ann. They'd made each other several promises, when they married. One, practically a cliché, was no secrets and that extended to the letters between him and Ruth. Blair interpreted it by never opening his first wife's letters at the embassy when they arrived, but always waiting until he got home.
She refilled his glass and decided, after a moment's hesitation, against having a third herself while he opened the letter and read it. 'She's taking the kids to her folks' place in Maine, for Thanksgiving,' he reported. There was a few seconds' silence and then he said, 'Paul's grades aren't good; teacher's apparently disappointed. John's either.'
Ann wondered if it was because of the break-up and knew he would, too. It wouldn't have been possible here in Moscow, of course, but elsewhere he would have taught the boys to cook-out and ride and hunt and fish and have gone camping with them, at week-ends and on vacations. He missed the boys, she knew. His guilt – the guilt he sought to minimise, despite the undertakings about no secrets – was as much for abandoning them as it was for abandoning Ruth.
'Ruth's been getting out,' he said, still reading the letter. 'Guy called Charlie Rogers. Someone she knew at high school. Friend of the family, apparently.'
'How do you feel about that?' she said, wishing immediately she hadn't.
Blair frowned up at her. 'Pleased for her, of course,' he said. 'What else should I feel?'
'Nothing,' she agreed at once. He could have made an argument out of it if he'd wanted to. Thank God he hadn't. She was still nervous of arguments, in their relationship.
'She's sent some pictures,' said Blair. He looked at the prints for several moments and Ann stared at him, alert for any facial reaction. There wasn't any. 'Here,' he said, offering them to her.
Paul was the older, fourteen in two months' time. John was nine, dark-haired like Ruth. Paul had his father's blondness and would be big, too: already he had to be almost five feet. She guessed they'd posed specially for the photographs to be sent to their father: their lips were barely parted, in reluctant indications of a smile. They were standing against Ruth's car, in the driveway of the Rosslyn house. If Eddie got the headquarters posting he expected, he'd be very near to them, Ann realised. So he would be able to take them on cook-outs and hunting and camping. Would the boys accept her? Ruth had – or appeared to have done, at least – despite the strained tightness of the initial confrontations and the immediate aftermath of the divorce. There'd only been one meeting with the children and they'd treated her then like the enemy she was, which she realistically accepted was all she could expect. She hoped the attitude would change, with time. 'Is John wearing braces on his teeth?' she said, passing the pictures back.
Blair stared down and said, 'Difficult to tell. Ruth doesn't say anything about it in the letter.'
He held it out to her, for her to read, another part of their no secrets agreement. Ann hesitated, appreciating the gesture but reluctant to take it from him. It was part of the undertaking between them. And he always read her letters, from her mother, although more out of courtesy to her than for any other reason, because they were so bloody stiff and formal. But she always felt the embarrassment of prying when it came to Ruth's correspondence, which was probably illogical, considering that she'd taken the woman's husband but it was nevertheless a sensation she always experienced. There was, of course, the other reason. To want to read the letters from his first wife could have indicated a jealousy. Ann was confident she didn't have anything to be jealous about, not with Ruth. It was only to be expected that Eddie would still have some feeling for her: love, even, of a kind. But not the kind that was any danger to her. So there was no reason for jealousy and no reason, therefore, to do anything that might hint she felt that way. Like reading her letters. 'Later,' she avoided. 'I've got dinner to fix first.'
As soon as they started to eat Ann recognised that the steaks were slightly more overdone than he liked, but Blair didn't complain. 'Sorry,' she said, not wanting him to think she didn't care.
'It's fine, really,' he said. 'John Ingram has got his posting.'
'Where?' she said. Ingram was Blair's counterpart at the British Embassy, the Resident for Britain's M16.
'London,' said Blair.
Lucky John Ingram, thought Ann. London was where she'd first met Blair, when he'd been attached to the American Embassy there, liaison attaché with the British. 'I'll miss them,' she said.
Lucinda Ingram had been one of the few wives to accept her, almost from the start, a bustling, no-nonsense woman, one of the ones who didn't flirt. She drank a bit, though; but never beyond control. Lucinda's going would mean she was losing her closest friend.
'The farewell party is next Saturday.'
Same faces, same small-talk, she thought. 'When did they hear about the move?'
Which was why Lucinda hadn't called, Ann supposed. She'd only be hearing about it herself tonight. 'I must buy her something. A farewell gift,' said Ann.
'That would be nice.'
'Maybe something from the gold shop, on Gorky Street.' There wasn't much else she could think of in the way of a gift that was obtainable in Moscow.
'John's asked me to look out for their new man.'
'Who is it?'
'Someone called Brinkman. Jeremy Brinkman.'
'Wonder if he knows what to expect,' said Ann. New arrivals were always lionised, a fresh face initially with fresh stories and news from outside their confines.
'John doesn't know him.'
'Is he pleased to be going?' Lucinda's attitude had always been that Moscow was a stepping-stone assignment for her husband and somewhere – like anywhere else – that had to be enjoyed by a careerist's wife.
'It's a promotion, so I think so,' said Blair. 'I don't know that he likes the idea of being stuck in London.'
Dear God, just for the chance, thought Ann. She said, 'Will he be?'
'He's not sure.'
'How long's he been here?'
'Three years,' said Blair.
Which meant they had a year to go, if three years were the norm, Ann calculated. Endure it, she thought. She said, 'Thought about where you'd like to go next, apart from back to Langley?'
Instead of answering, Blair said, 'What about you? Where would you like to go, if you were given the choice?'
Anywhere, so long as it was away from this damned place, Ann thought. She said, 'I don't care where I am, just as long as it's with you.'
He reached across the table for her hand, and she felt out for his. 'I love you,' said Blair. 'I love you very much.'
'I love you, too,' said Ann. 'Very much.'
Pietr Orlov travelled on a diplomatic passport, which meant he was able to bypass the frustrating delays and formalities at Sheremetyevo airport. It meant, too, that his incoming luggage and freight was spared any Customs examination. He stood watching the dour-faced inspector in head-bent consultation with the official from the Foreign Ministry, guessing both would be resentful of his ability to bring so much back from America. Orlov hoped it wasn't too much but he wanted it to look right. Someone recalled to Moscow after two years in New York would surely bring back the maximum he was allowed?
The check completed, the Foreign Ministry official came back to Orlov with the manifest. 'Welcome back', said the man.
Excerpted from The Lost American by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1986 Brian Freemantle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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