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The sky over Whitehall is doughy grey, the air chill and granular. It is a Monday morning in early February, yet winter has seemingly only just begun after a dank, extended autumn. The cold is almost a tonic for Richard Eusden as he emerges from the Churchill Cafe, mug of strong black coffee in hand, and sits down at one of the pavement tables. He drops his briefcase beside his chair, sinks his chin within the sheltering collar of his overcoat and lets the warmth of the coffee seep into his palm as he surveys the familiar scene.
The traffic is thinner than usual, but slow-moving nonetheless, thanks to the pelican crossing adjacent to the cafe. It beeps and blinks in service to the dark-suited men and women crossing in both directions who are bound for their desks and workplaces in the ministries either side of Whitehall. Many already have their security passes dangling round their necks, their identities surrendered and declared, their working weeks about to begin in variations on an institutionalized theme.
Richard Eusden's security pass is still in his pocket. He will take it out only when he is most of the way down King Charles Street and turning into the Foreign Office staff entrance. The delay is a small assertion of his individuality, pitifully small in all conscience, but one of the few open to him. A civil servant closing fast on fifty with an index-linked pension no longer an unimaginably distant prospect cannot afford to cock a snook at the government machine he is undeniably part of. But there is no need to rush to take his place within it this morning. It is not yet 8:30. His train was neither late nor overcrowded. He is feeling less than usually travel-worn. He sips his coffee and tries to savour the moment. He knows he should put it to more obviously practical use, if only for the benefit of any of his colleagues who may pass by. There are file notes in his case he intended to study--but did not--in the course of the weekend. He could profitably cast an eye over them now. Staring into space is perhaps not the wisest image to project in the ever more image-conscious culture that has engulfed his profession. But still he goes on staring, through the plume of steam rising from his coffee.
The truth, he recognized long ago, was that he should never have become a civil servant. Deep within his soul he lacks the vital capacity to think the conventional thought--and to believe it. Having become one, he should have quit once he realized his mistake. He should have dropped out, travelled the world, searched for something else--anything else--to do with his life. But he had just married then and assumed he would have children, who would need the comfort and security his career could supply. And by the time that and a number of other assumptions about his marriage had been confounded, he had persuaded himself it was too late to make the break. More accurately, it was too easy to refrain from making the effort. Now it really is too late. Life, he is well aware, is what you make of it. And this is what he has made of his. He is smartly dressed and well-groomed. He is not losing his hair or running to fat. His blue eyes still glisten. His brain is still sharp. By most people's standards, he leads an enviable existence. He tries to remind himself of this as he contemplates the predictable day and unsurprising week that lie ahead of him. He needs a change, but he does not expect to get it. He takes a deeper swallow of coffee and sets the mug down on the table.
His fingers are barely free of the mug handle when three short blasts on a car horn snap his attention to the other side of the street. A pea-green Mazda is cruising slowly through the pelican crossing as the light flashes amber. The driver's window is opening and a face coming into view that Eusden senses he is on the brink of recognizing, only for a dirty red slab of bendy bus to cut off the view.
The bus slows for traffic ahead and merely crawls forward. It is an open question to Eusden whether he will see the Mazda again. It may already be past the Cenotaph and heading towards Trafalgar Square. He knows nobody who drives such a car. He has no concrete reason for supposing the horn was sounded for his benefit. The incident seems about to despool into the ebb and flow of the morning.
But it does not. The Mazda completes a fast and illegal U-turn into the bus lane as the blockage to Eusden's view finally removes itself. The car jolts to a halt at the pavement's edge, the driver waving through the windscreen to attract Eusden's attention. He starts with astonishment. The driver is Gemma, his ex-wife. He has not seen or spoken to her for several years. They have, she memorably assured him the last time they met, nothing to say to each other. The clear implication of her manner on that occasion was that they never would have. Something has changed her mind--something urgent, to judge by her behaviour.
"Richard," she shouts through the open window. "Get in."
Eusden grabs his case, jumps up and strides across to the car, stooping to engage Gemma at eye-level. She looks, if anything, younger than he remembers. Her hair is shorter, her face slightly thinner, her skin clear, aglow with health. She is dressed in a black tracksuit and trainers. She appears what she is: fit, energetic, intent.
"Get in," she repeats.
"I'm on my way to the office," Eusden objects, though with little force. He already badly wants her not to drive away without him.
"Sod the office. Will you please just get in the car?" Her tone is impatient, but her gaze is pleading. She needs him. For once, she really does. "Please, Richard."
A double-decker is bearing down on them along the bus lane. Something has to give. He hesitates, then opens the door and climbs into the car. Gemma accelerates away, tyres squealing.
"Sorry," she says, though whether she is apologizing for her driving or her unannounced reappearance in his life is hard to tell.
"What's going on, Gemma?" Eusden asks, buckling his seat belt as they swerve into Parliament Square.
"I was looking for somewhere to park when I saw you. We have to talk."
Marty Hewitson. Eusden's childhood friend. Gemma's other ex-husband. Of all the subjects under the sun, Marty should be the last she wants to broach between them.
"He's asked me to do something for him." She keeps to the right, circling the square, looking ahead, avoiding any danger of meeting Eusden's eyes. "I want you to do it instead."
Surprise gives way to disbelief. "Why the hell should I?" is Eusden's instinctive response. But all he actually says is, "Really?" Certainly he can imagine no reason why he would even consider helping either of them. Then Gemma supplies such a reason. By answering the question he has not asked.
"He's dying, Richard." She shoots a glance at him. "Marty's dying."
"Dying?" Eusden repeated incredulously as they drove along Birdcage Walk through the visibly unaltered but transformed workaday morning.
"An inoperable brain tumour," said Gemma, sorrow deepening her matter-of-fact tone. "He's got a few months at most. But it could happen sooner. It could happen anytime."
"Have you seen him?"
"No. And I don't want to. I don't think I could handle that, Richard. But I'd have to see him to do this favour he wants. That's why . . ."
"You thought of me."
"You and Marty were friends long before I came into your lives. You shouldn't let him die without . . . patching it up between you."
"No. Of course you shouldn't. You know that." Her sidelong glance caught him unawares, his expression doubtless revealing more than his words. "Don't you?"
Nearly forty years had passed since Richard Eusden's first meeting with Marty Hewitson. Carisbrooke Grammar School, Newport, Isle of Wight: a cool day in early September 1968. They were of the last generation of boys on the Island to take the eleven-plus and found themselves standing next to each other when the first year intake was corralled in the windy school yard that morning. Of such chances are friendships made. They were both intelligent and inquisitive, intellectually ambitious as well as mildly rebellious. They stuck together through seven years at Carisbrooke, Richard thriving on exams, while Marty, the more naturally gifted of the two, kept pace with him effortlessly. Then on to Cambridge, where their fateful shared infatuation with the bewitching Gemma Conway began.
It took more than two decades for the tragicomedy of their triangular relationship to play itself out--insofar as it had. After Cambridge, Richard joined the Civil Service, Marty went into TV journalism and Gemma studied for a Ph.D. They were all based in London. Marty seemed to have won the contest for Gemma and Richard tried to accept defeat graciously. But Marty was already beginning to hone a serious drug habit which Gemma could not tolerate. She left him for Richard. They married while Marty was ITV's Man in the Middle East. Gemma secured a teaching post at Surrey University. They moved to Guildford. Suburban conformity beckoned. But Gemma recoiled from it. Marty returned from the Middle East, Lebanese girlfriend in tow. They began to spend time together as a foursome. Gemma landed a post at the LSE. Soon, she was back with Marty, despite the drugs, though Richard did not find out until the Lebanese girlfriend told him. Divorce followed. Gemma married Marty. They moved to Italy, where Marty was supposed to be writing a novel while Gemma taught at the University of Bologna. There was a kind of rapprochement. Richard visited them several times. Everyone behaved in a very civilized way. But it was not clear if they had their hearts in it. Naturally no novel was written. Cocaine became more important to Marty than Gemma. She left again--for a fellowship at Cambridge. Marty drifted back to London. His greatest attribute--the impossibility of holding a grudge against him--was unimpaired. Richard knew better than to try holding one anyway. Winning back Gemma was a different matter. He could not stop himself trying to do that, with some success, at least for a while. But too much had gone wrong too often. Their relationship finally fizzled out around the time Marty copped an eighteen-month prison sentence for drug dealing. The experience did not prove salutary. He was on remand for a second offence when he skipped the country. Richard, who had put up his bail money, had neither seen nor heard from him since, bar one cryptically apologetic postcard from Uruguay. The triangle was broken at last. Or so it had seemed.
"Where are we going?" Eusden asked as Gemma took off from the lights by Buckingham Palace.
"Hyde Park. We can talk there."
He opened his briefcase and took out his phone. "I'd better call the office and let them know I'll be late."
"Say you can't make it today at all."
"That favour I mentioned. It's now or never."
"What d'you mean?"
"I'll explain. I promise. Just wait till we're out of the traffic and I can concentrate."
Memories gather poignancy like dust. They confer on the past a magical unattainability. Schooldays on the Isle of Wight; student years at Cambridge; married life in Guildford; evenings in pubs with Marty, rivalry for Gemma sharpening their arguments about politics and economics and the future of the world: Eusden mourned them all now as lost interludes of contentment, even though contented was not what he had felt at the time. Marty Hewitson was the best and closest friend he would ever have. And he would never love another woman as he had loved Gemma Conway. Those were facts of his life. He could not alter them. He could not wish them away. Even if he wanted to. Which of course he did not.
There had been plenty of spaces in the car park by the Serpentine. Joggers and dog-walkers were thin on the ground at this hour. The bare trees were skeletal against the gunmetal sky. Some geese were still asleep, heads tucked under wings, denying the day had begun. Only the coots were active, corvetting noisily around as Gemma set a brisk pace past the boathouses, the hotel blocks of Park Lane rearing ahead like the buttes of a sunless desert.
"Where's he been these past few years?" Eusden asked, breathing hard from the effort of keeping up with her.
"Amsterdam, mostly. He doesn't think the police have been trying very hard to find him. But he doesn't want to risk arrest by coming back here."
"So, what's the favour?"
"He phoned me last week. I was too shocked by his news to realize how . . . difficult I'd find it to see him again. He wants something taken to him."
"No. He's coming to Brussels to meet me off the Eurostar this afternoon. I'm hoping you'll agree to go instead. It's just a day trip, Richard. You'll be back this evening. The Foreign Office can spare you for twenty-four hours, can't they?"
"Why is it so difficult for you to see him again?"
"Because I've got over him. I don't want to see him looking ill or old. I don't want to be reminded of what we once had--and what he threw away."
"You can't bear to see him because you loved him once. But you can bear to see me."
"You're not dying."
"Actually, we're all dying, Gemma. Just at different rates."
She stopped and looked at him. "Are you going to do this?"
"Depends what this is."
"A package of some kind. I'm to collect it later this morning from a Bernie Shadbolt."
"Someone Marty met in prison. Someone he trusts."
"Why doesn't he trust him to take the package, then?"
"He said Shadbolt couldn't spare the time. For what it's worth, I suspect it's a ruse. To see me again. Maybe to . . . try to persuade me to go back to him . . . for as long as he's got left."
"When did that possibility occur to you?"
"When Monica pointed it out to me."
Ah, Monica. Eusden had wondered how long it would be before Gemma's Cambridge housemate found her way into the conversation. He had tried hard not to ponder the true nature of their relationship. Naturally, he had failed. "Did she also point out that carrying a package through Customs for a convicted drug dealer isn't the smartest of moves?"
"For Christ's sake, Richard." Gemma looked genuinely disappointed that he had asked such a question. "No one's trying to set you up. Marty lives in Amsterdam. He doesn't need to smuggle drugs over from the Isle of Wight."