At seven o'clock of a Caribbean morning, on the island of Antigua, one Peregrine Makepiece, otherwise known as Perry, an all-round amateur athlete of distinction and until recently tutor in English literature at a distinguished Oxford college, played three sets of tennis against a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties called Dima. How this match came about was quickly the subject of intense examination by British agents professionally disposed against the workings of chance. Yet the events leading up to it were on Perry's side blameless.
The dawning of his thirtieth birthday three months previously had triggered a life-change in him that had been building up for a year or more without his being aware of it. Seated head in hands at eight o'clock in the morning in his modest Oxford rooms, after a seven-mile run that had done nothing to ease his sense of calamity, he had searched his soul to know just what the first third of his natural life had achieved, apart from providing him with an excuse for not engaging in the world beyond the city's dreaming spires.
To any outward eye, his was the ultimate academic success story. The State-educated son of secondary-school teachers arrives in Oxford from London University laden with academic honours and takes up a three-year post awarded him by an ancient, rich, achievement-driven college. His first name, traditionally the property of the English upper classes, derives from a rabble-rousing Methodist prelate of the nineteenth century named Arthur Peregrine of Huddersfield.
In the term time, when he isn't teaching, he distinguishes himself as a cross-country runner and sportsman. On his spare evenings he helps out in a local youth club. In vacations he conquers difficult peaks and Most Serious climbs. Yet when his college offers him a permanent Fellowshipor to his present soured way of thinking, imprisonment for lifehe baulks.
Last term he had delivered a series of lectures on George Orwell under the title 'A Stifled Britain?' and his rhetoric had alarmed him. Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?
Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, he had supplied it for himself: no, Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass.
It was a topic he had thrashed out mercilessly with Gail, his longstanding girlfriend, as they lay in her bed after a birthday supper at the flat in Primrose Hill that she had part-inherited from her otherwise penniless father.
'I don't like dons and I don't like being one myself. I don't like academia and if I never have to wear a bloody gown again, I'll feel a free man,' he had ranted at the gold-brown hair clustered comfortably on his shoulder.
And receiving no reply beyond a sympathetic purr:
'Hammering on about Byron, Keats and Wordsworth to a bunch of bored undergraduates whose highest ambition is to get a degree, get laid, and get rich? Done it. Been there. Fuck it.'
And raising the odds:
'About the only thing that would really keep me in this country is a bloody revolution.'
And Gail, a sparky young barrister on the rise, blessed with looks and a quick tonguesometimes a little too quick for her own comfort as well as Perry'sassured him that no revolution would be complete without him.
Both were de facto orphans. If Perry's late parents had been the soul of high-minded Christian socialist abstinence, Gail's were the other thing. Her father, a sweetly useless actor, had died prematurely of alcohol, sixty cigarettes a day and a misplaced passion for his wayward wife. Her mother, an actress but less sweet, had vanished from the family home when Gail was thirteen, and was reputed to be living the simple life on the Costa Brava with a second cameraman.
Perry's initial reaction to his life-decision to shake the dust of academia from his feetirrevocable, like all Perry's life-decisionswas to return to his grass roots. The only son of Dora and Alfred would put himself where their convictions had been. He would begin his teaching career all over again at the point where they had been forced to abandon theirs.
He would stop playing the intellectual high-flyer, sign up for an honest-to-God teacher-training course and, in their image, qualify as a secondary-school teacher in one of his country's most deprived areas.
He would teach set subjects, and any sport they cared to throw at him, to children who needed him as a lifeline to self-fulfilment rather than as a ticket to middle-class prosperity.
But Gail was not as alarmed by this prospect as perhaps he intended her to be. For all his determination to be at the hard centre of life, there remained other unreconciled versions of him, and Gail was on familiar terms with most of them:
Yes, there was Perry the self-punishing student at London University where they had first met, who in the mould of T. E. Lawrence had taken his bicycle to France in the vacations and ridden it until he keeled over with exhaustion.
And yes, there was Perry the alpine adventurer, the Perry who could run no race and play no game, from seven-a-side rugby to pass the parcel with her nephews and nieces at Christmas time, without a compulsive need to win.
But there was also Perry the closet sybarite who treated himself to unpredictable bursts of luxury before hurrying back to his garret. And this was the Perry who stood on the best tennis court at the best recession-hit resort in Antigua on that early May morning before the sun got too high to play, with the Russian Dima one side of the net and Perry the other, and Gail wearing a swimsuit and a broad-brimmed floppy hat and a silky cover-up that covered very little, sitting amid an unlikely assembly of dead-eyed spectators, some dressed in black, who appeared to have sworn a collective oath not to smile, not to speak, and not to express any interest in the match they were being compelled to watch.
It was a lucky chance, in Gail's opinion, that the Caribbean adventure had been planned in advance of Perry's impulsive life-decision. Its inception dated back to darkest November when his father had fallen victim to the same cancer that had carried off his mother two years earlier, leaving Perry in a state of modest affluence. Not holding with inherited wealth, and being in two minds as to whether he should give all he had to the poor, Perry dithered. But after a campaign of attrition mounted by Gail, they had settled for a once-in-a-lifetime bargain tennis holiday in the sun.
And no holiday could have been better planned, as it turned out, for by the time they had embarked on it, even bigger decisions were staring them in the face:
What should Perry do with his life, and should they do it together?
Should Gail give up the Bar and step blindly into the azure yonder with him, or should she continue to pursue her meteoric career in London?
Or might it be time to admit that her career was no more meteoric than most young barristers' careers, and should she therefore get herself pregnant, which was what Perry was forever urging her to do?
And if Gail, either out of impishness or self-defence, had a habit of turning large questions into little ones, there remained no doubt that the two of them were separately and together at life's crossroads with some pretty heavy thinking to do, and that a holiday in Antigua looked like providing the ideal setting in which to do it.
Their flight was delayed, with the result that they didn't check into their hotel till after midnight. Ambrose, the resort's ubiquitous major-domo, showed them to their cabin. They rose late and by the time they had breakfasted on their balcony the sun was too hot for tennis. They swam on a three-quarters-empty beach, had a solitary lunch by the pool, made languorous love in the afternoon, and at six in the evening presented themselves at the pro's shop, rested, happy, and eager for a game.
Seen from a distance, the resort was no more than a cluster of white cottages scattered along a mile-wide horseshoe of proverbial talcum-powder sand. Two promontories of rock strewn with scrub forest marked its extremities. Between them ran a coral reef and a line of fluorescent buoys to ward off nosy motor yachts. And on hidden terraces wrested from the hillside lay the resort's championship-standard tennis courts. Meagre stone steps wound between flowering shrubs to the front door of the pro's shop. Once through it, you entered tennis heaven, which was why Perry and Gail had chosen the place.
There were five courts and one centre court. Competition balls were kept in green refrigerators. Competition silver cups in glass cases bore the names of champions of yesteryear and Mark, the overweight Australian pro, was one of them.
'So what sort of level are we looking at here, if I may inquire?' he asked with heavy gentility, taking in without comment the quality of Perry's battle-scarred racquets, his thick white socks and worn but serviceable tennis shoes, and Gail's neckline.
For two people past their first youth but still in the bloom of life, Perry and Gail made a strikingly attractive pair. Nature had provided Gail with long, shapely legs and arms, high, small breasts, a lissome body, English skin, fine gold hair and a smile to light the gloomiest corners of life. Perry had a different sort of Englishness, being lank and at first sight dislocated, with a long neck and prominent Adam's apple. His stride was ungainly, he seemed to topple and his ears protruded. At his State school he had been awarded the nickname of Giraffe, until those unwise enough to use it learned their lesson. But with manhood he had acquiredunconsciously, which only made it more impressivea precarious but undoubted grace. He had a mop of brown curls, a wide, freckled forehead, and large, bespectacled eyes that gave out an air of angelic perplexity.
Not trusting Perry to blow his own trumpet, and protective of him as always, Gail took the pro's question upon herself.
'Perry plays qualifiers for Queen's and he got into the main draw once too, didn't you? You actually made it to the Masters. And that was after breaking his leg skiing and not playing for six months,' she added proudly.
'And you, madam, if I may make so bold?' Mark the obsequious pro inquired, with a little more spin on the 'madam' than Gail cared for.
'I'm his rabbit,' she replied coolly, to which Perry said, 'Sheer bollocks,' and the Australian sucked his teeth, shook his heavy head in disbelief and thumbed the messy pages of his ledger.
'Well, I've got one pair here might do you good people. They're a sight too classy for my other guests, I'll tell you that right now. Not that I've a vast selection of humanity to choose from, frankly. Maybe you four should give each other a whirl.'
Their opponents turned out to be an Indian honeymoon couple from Mumbai. The centre court was taken, but court 1 was free. Soon a handful of passers-by and players from other courts had drifted over to watch the four of them warm up: fluid strokes from the baseline casually returned, passing shots that nobody ran for, the unanswered smash from the net. Perry and Gail won the toss, Perry gave first serve to Gail who twice double-faulted and they lost the game. The Indian bride followed her. Play remained sedate.
It wasn't till Perry began serving that the quality of his play became apparent. His first serve had height and power, and when it went in, there wasn't much anyone could do about it. He served four in a row. The crowd grew, the players were young and good-looking, the ball boys discovered new heights of energy. Towards the end of the first set, Mark the pro casually turned out to take a look, stayed for three games, then with a thoughtful frown returned to his shop.
After a long second set, the score was one set each. The third and final set reached 4 3, with Perry and Gail having the edge. But if Gail was inclined to hold back, Perry was by now in full cry, and the match ended without the Indian couple winning another game.
The crowd drifted away. The four lingered to exchange compliments, fix a return and maybe catch a drink in the bar this evening? You bet. The Indians departed, leaving Perry and Gail to gather up their spare racquets and pullovers.
As they did so, the Australian pro returned to the court bringing with him a muscular, erect, huge-chested, completely bald man wearing a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex wristwatch and grey tracksuit bottoms kept up by a drawstring tied in a bow at his midriff.
Why Perry should have spotted the bow at his midriff first and the rest of the man afterwards is easily explained. He was in the act of changing his elderly but comfortable tennis shoes for a pair of beach shoes with rope soles, and when he heard his name called he was still bent double. Therefore he lifted his long head slowly, the way tall, angular men do, and registered first a pair of leather espadrilles on small, almost feminine feet set piratically apart, then a couple of stocky, tracksuited calves in grey; and, coming up, the drawstring bow that kept the trousers aloft, double-tied as such a bow should be, given its considerable area of responsibility.
And above the bow-line, a belly of finest crimson cotton blouse encasing a massive torso that seemed not to know its stomach from its chest, and rising to an Eastern-style collar that if fastened would have made a cut-down version of a clerical dog-collar, except that there was no way it could have accommodated the muscular neck inside it.
And above the collar, tipped to one side in appeal, eyebrows raised in invitation, the creaseless face of a fifty-something man with soulful brown eyes beaming a dolphin smile at him. The absence of creases did not suggest inexperience, rather the opposite. It was a face that to Perry the outdoor adventurer seemed cast for life: the face, he told Gail much later, of a formed man, another definition that he aspired to himself, but for all his manly striving did not feel he had yet attained.
'Perry, allow me to present my good friend and patron, Mr Dima from Russia,' said Mark, injecting a ring of ceremony into his unctuous voice. 'Dima thought you played a pretty nifty match out there, am I right, sir? As a fine connoisseur of the game of tennis, he's been watching you highly appreciatively, I think I may say, Dima.'
'Wanna game?' Dima inquired, without taking his brown, apologetic gaze off Perry, who by now was hovering awkwardly at his full height.
'Hi,' said Perry, a bit breathlessly, and shoved out a sweated hand. Dima's was the hand of an artisan turned to fat, tattooed with a small star or asterisk on the second knuckle of the thumb. 'And this is Gail Perkins, my partner in crime,' he added, feeling a need to slow the pace a bit.
But before Dima could respond, Mark had let out a snort of sycophantic protest. 'Crime, Perry?' he objected. 'Don't you believe this man, Gail! You did a dandy job out there, and that's straight. A couple of those backhand passing shots were up there with the gods, right, Dima? You said so yourself. We were watching from the shop. Closed circuit.'
'Mark says you play Queen's,' Dima said, the dolphin smile still directed at Perry, the voice thick and deep and guttural, and vaguely American.
'Well, that was a few years back now,' said Perry modestly, still buying time.
'Dima recently acquired Three Chimneys, right, Dima?' Mark said, as if this news somehow made the proposition of a game more compelling. 'Finest location this side of the island, right, Dima? Got great plans for it, we hear. And you two are in Captain Cook, I believe, one of the best cabins in the resort, in my opinion.'
'Well, there you go. You're neighbours, right, Dima? Three Chimneys is perched slap on the tip of the peninsula across the bay from you. The last major undeveloped property on the island but Dima's going to put that right, correct, sir? There's talk of a share issue with preference given to the inhabitants, which strikes me as a pretty decent idea. Meanwhile, you're indulging in a bit of rough-and-ready camping, I hear. Hosting a few like-minded friends and family. I admire that. We all do. For a person of your means, we call that true grit.'
'Doubles?' Perry asked, extricating himself from the intensity of Dima's stare in order to peer dubiously at Gail.
But Mark, having achieved his bridgehead, pressed home his advantage:
'Thank you, Perry, no doubles for Dima, I'm afraid,' he interjected smartly. 'Our friend here plays singles only, correct, sir? You're a self-reliant man. You like to be responsible for your own errors, you told me once. Those were your very words to me not so long ago, and I've taken them to heart.'
Seeing that Perry was by now torn but also tempted, Gail rallied to his rescue:
'Don't worry about me, Perry. If you want to play a singles, go ahead, I'll be fine.'
'Perry, I do not believe you should be reluctant to take this gentleman on,' Mark insisted, ramming his case home. 'If I was a betting man, I'd be pushed which of you to favour, and that's a living fact.'
Was that a limp as Dima walked away? That slight dragging of the left foot? Or was it just the strain of carting that huge upper body around all day?
Was it here too that Perry first became aware of the two white men loitering at the gateway to the court with nothing to do? One with his hands loosely linked behind his back, the other with his arms folded across his chest? Both wearing trainers? The one blond and baby-faced, the other dark-haired and languid?
If so, then only subconsciously, he grudgingly maintained, to the man who called himself Luke, and the woman who called herself Yvonne, ten days later when the four of them were sitting at an oval dining table in the basement of a pretty terrace house in Bloomsbury.
They had been driven there in a black cab from Gail's flat in Primrose Hill by a large, genial man in a beret and an earring who said his name was Ollie. Luke had opened the door to them, Yvonne stood waiting behind Luke. In a thickly carpeted hall that smelled of fresh paint, Perry and Gail had their hands shaken, were courteously thanked by Luke for coming, and led downstairs to this converted basement with its table, six chairs and a kitchenette. Frosted windows, shaped in a half-moon and set high in the exterior wall, flickered to the shadowy feet of passing pedestrians on the pavement overhead.
They were next deprived of their mobiles and invited to sign a declaration under the Official Secrets Act. Gail the lawyer read the text and was outraged. 'Over my dead body,' she exclaimed, whereas Perry, with a mumbled 'what's the difference?', signed it impatiently away. After making a couple of deletions and inking in wording of her own, Gail signed under protest. The lighting in the basement consisted of a single wan lamp hanging over the table. The brick walls exuded a faint scent of old port wine.
Luke was courtly, clean-shaven, mid-forties and to Gail's eye too small. Male spies, she told herself with a false jocularity brought on by nervousness, should come a size larger. With his upright posture, sharp grey suit and little horns of greying hair flicked up above the ears, he reminded her more of a gentleman jockey on his best behaviour.
Yvonne on the other hand could not have been much older than Gail. She was prissy in Gail's initial perception of her, but in a bluestocking sort of way beautiful. With her boring business suit, bobbed dark hair and no make-up, she looked older than she needed and, for a female spy, again in Gail's determinedly frivolous judgement, too earnest by half.
'So you didn't actually recognize them as bodyguards,' Luke suggested, his trim head eagerly switching between the two of them across the table. 'You didn't say to each other, when you were alone, for instance: "Hello, that was a bit odd, this fellow Dima, whoever he is, seems to have got himself some close protection," as it were?'
Is that really how Perry and I talk to each other? Gail thought. I didn't know.
'I saw the men, obviously,' Perry conceded. 'But if you're asking, did I make anything of them, the answer's no. Probably two fellows looking for a game, I thought, if I thought anything'and plucking earnestly at his brow with his long fingers'I mean you don't just think bodyguards straight off, do you? Well, you people may. That's the world you live in, I assume. But if you're an ordinary citizen, it doesn't cross your mind.'
'So how about you, Gail?' Luke inquired with brisk solicitude. 'You're in and out of the law courts all day. You see the wicked world in its awful glory. Did you have your suspicions about them?'
'If I was aware of them at all, I probably thought they were a couple of blokes giving me the eye, so I ignored them,' Gail replied.
But this didn't do at all for Yvonne, the teacher's pet. 'But that evening, Gail, mulling over the day'was she Scottish? Could well be, thought Gail, who prided herself on her mynah bird's ear for voices'did you really not make anything of two spare men hovering in attendance?'
'It was our first proper night in the hotel,' said Gail in a surge of nervous exasperation. 'Perry had booked us Candlelight Dinner on the Captain's Deck, OK? We had stars and a full moon and mating bullfrogs in full cry and a moonpath that ran practically to our table. Do you honestly suppose we spent the evening gazing into one another's eyes and talking about Dima's minders? I mean, give us a break'and fearing she had sounded ruder than she intended'all right, briefly, we did talk about Dima. He's one of those people who stay on the retina. One minute he was our first Russian oligarch, the next Perry was flagellating himself for agreeing to play a singles with him and wanting to phone the pro and say the game was off. I told him I'd danced with men like Dima and they had the most amazing technique. That shut you up, didn't it, Perry, dear?'
Separated from each other by a gap as wide as the Atlantic Ocean they had recently crossed, yet thankful to be unburdening themselves before two professionally inquisitive listeners, Perry and Gail resumed their story.
Quarter to seven next morning. Mark was standing waiting for them at the top of the stone steps, clad in his best whites and clasping two cans of refrigerated tennis balls and a paper cup of coffee.
'I was dead afraid you guys would oversleep,' he said excitedly. 'Listen, we're fine, no bother. Gail, how are you today? Very peachy, if I may say so. After you, Perry, sir. My pleasure. What a day, eh? What a day.'
Perry led the way up the second flight to where the path turned left. As he turned with it he came face to face with the same two men in bomber jackets who had been loitering the previous evening. They were posted either side of the flowered archway that led like a bridal walk to the door of the centre court, which was a world to itself, enclosed on four sides by canvas screens and twenty-foot high-hedges of hibiscus.
Seeing the three of them approach, the fair-haired man with the baby face took a half-pace forward and with a mirthless smile opened out his hands in the classic gesture of one man about to frisk another. Puzzled, Perry came to a halt at his full height, not yet within frisking distance but a good six feet short, with Gail beside him. As the man took another step forward, Perry took one back, taking Gail with him and exclaiming, 'What the hell's all this?'effectively to Mark, since neither the baby face nor his darker-haired colleague showed any sign of having heard, let alone understood, his question.
'Security, Perry,' Mark explained, pressing past Gail to murmur reassuringly into Perry's ear. 'Routine.'
Perry remained where he stood, craning his neck forward and sideways while he digested this advice.
'Whose security exactly? I don't get it. Do you?'to Gail.
'Me neither,' she agreed.
'Dima's security, Perry. Whose do you think? He's a high-roller. Big-time international. These boys are just obeying orders.'
'Your orders, Mark?'turning and peering down on him accusingly through his spectacles.
'Dima's orders, not mine, Perry, don't be stupid. They're Dima's boys. Go with him everywhere.'
Perry returned his attention to the blond bodyguard. 'Do you gents speak English, by any chance?' he asked. And when the baby face refused to alter in any way, except to harden: 'He appears to speak no English. Or hear it, apparently.'
'For Christ's sakes, Perry,' Mark pleaded, his beery complexion turning a darker shade of crimson. 'One little look in your bag, it's over. It's nothing personal. Routine, like I said. Same as any airport.'
Perry again applied to Gail: 'Do you have a view on this?'
'I certainly do.'
Perry tilted his head the other way. 'I need to get this absolutely right, you see, Mark,' he explained, asserting his pedagogic authority. 'My proposed tennis partner Dima wishes to make sure I'm not going to throw a bomb at him. Is that what these men are telling me?'
'It's a dangerous world out there, Perry. Perhaps you haven't heard about that, but the rest of us have, and we endeavour to live with it. With all due respect, I would strongly advise you to go with the flow.'
'Alternatively, I might be about to gun him down with my Kalashnikov,' Perry went on, raising his tennis bag an inch to indicate where he kept the weapon; at which the second man stepped out of the shadow of the bushes and positioned himself beside the first, but there was still not a legible facial expression between the two of them.
'You're making a mountain out of a molehill, if you don't mind my saying so, Mr Makepiece,' Mark protested, his hard-learned courtesy beginning to give way under the strain. 'There's a great game of tennis waiting in there. These boys are doing their duty, and they're doing it very politely and professionally in my judgment. Frankly I do not understand your problem, sir.'
'Ah. Problem,' Perry mused, picking on the word as a useful starting point for a group discussion with his students. 'Then allow me to explain my problem. Actually, come to think of it I have several problems. My first problem is, nobody looks inside my tennis bag without my permission, and in this case I do not grant my permission. And nobody looks inside this lady's either. Similar rules apply'indicating Gail.
'Rigorously,' Gail confirmed.
'Second problem. If your friend Dima thinks I'm going to assassinate him, why does he ask me to play tennis with him?' Having allowed ample time for an answer and received none, beyond a voluble sucking of the teeth, he proceeded. 'And my third problem is, the proposal as it stands is one-sided. Have I asked to look inside Dima's bag? I have not. Neither do I wish to. Perhaps you'd explain that to him when you give him my apologies. Gail. What do you say we dig into that great big breakfast buffet we've paid for?'
'Good idea,' Gail agreed heartily. 'I didn't know I was so peckish.'
They turned and, ignoring the pro's entreaties, were heading back down the steps when the gate to the court flew open and Dima's bass voice drew them to a halt.
'Don't run away, Mr Perry Makepiece. You wanna blow my brains out, use a goddam tennis racquet.'
'So how about his age, Gail, would you say?' Yvonne the bluestocking asked, making a prim note on the pad before her.
'Baby Face? Twenty-five max,' she replied, once again wishing she could find a mid-point in herself between flippancy and funk.
'Perry? How old?'
If you're six foot two, Perry, darling, we're all below average, thought Gail.
'Five ten,' she said.
And his blond hair cut very short, they both agreed.
'And he wore a gold link bracelet,' she remembered, startling herself. 'I once had a client who wore one just like it. If he got in a tight corner, he was going to break up the links and buy his way out with them, one by one.'
With sensibly trimmed, unvarnished fingernails, Yvonne is sliding a wad of press photographs at them across the oval table. In the foreground, half a dozen burly young men in Armani-type suits are congratulating a victorious racehorse, champagne glasses aloft for the camera. In the background, advertisers' hoardings in Cyrillic and English. And far left, arms folded across his chest, the baby-faced bodyguard with his nearly shaven blond head. Unlike his three companions, he wears no dark glasses. But on his left wrist he wears a bracelet of gold links.
Perry looks a little smug. Gail feels a little sick.