Manley wishes that he could live up to the adjectival sound of his name, if only to make an impression on women like Lydia, the new marketing assistant in Cultural Services (Overseas). He thinks of the word ‘impression’ in the same physical sense as the extrapolation of his surname into a version of the palpably muscular, but not in any sexual way at first. No - he is thinking more of the indentation made by his thumb on the back of her hand when they were first introduced.
But all that has changed. The quarry has turned and is making overtures. Naturally, he gives in.
‘Hi!’ she says a few days later, in that over-your-shoulder, PR sort of way. ‘Is this all yours?’
He looks around at the three empty desks and beyond them to the open door of his office, though he imagines her saying the words with her hand thrust inside his flies as she pins him against the wall.
‘Sort of’, he says. ’I’m the fixture but the others come and go.’
This is not the way even he usually deals with such encounters, but he often sits at his desk imagining the transformation of workplace vulgarity and haste into decorum and nonchalance.
His department has no need of marketing - quite the opposite. Sending a group of Leicestershire Morris Dancers to a folk festival in Ankara requires Lydia’s svelte assurance, her way of imposing charm on everything in her path. Around her head as she moves is sprayed a cloud of words that illustrates her department’s overt status, its ‘pro-activity’. Her English is none too secure (in the newsletter he has seen her commas doing duty as full-stops and her non-descriptive clauses thrashing around for completion) but in her ignorance of solecism he has found an unacknowledged weakness that excites him, though he has tried to banish the thought because it will end in her submission, always ambiguous in women of pert confidence, he believes; instead, he dreams of pointing out the inaccuracies and discovering that her acquiescence melts into admiration. He thinks this not bad for a conservative dresser who has just read in a magazine that kipper ties are coming back.
‘I like your pullover’, she says one morning, giving the garment a little tug and letting go. ‘Cashmere. I love cashmere.’
It is exactly what Squires said on being briefed for his last job, down Rawalpindi way. Squires - the AWOL dickhead.
He would love to tell Lydia more but he cannot until he knows she is real, and even then he’ll probably make something up because you can never be sure. Bad English as a front - that’d be new. In his game, everyone is guilty till proved innocent; it’s like being permanently dispossessed, trying to rein everyone and everything in to make a quorum. He cannot convince even his mother of his worth, but soon, if her forgetfulness increases, he might be able to confess all without her understanding or remembering a thing. Just two days ago he had a phone call from his newsagent. ‘She’s in the shop here in her dressing-gown and slippers and she don’t know why - it’s pissing down,’ he said, as though it were permissible and non-aggrieving for elderly women intimately dressed to cross his threshold in fine weather. He imagines he is talking to someone in a brown storeman’s coat But that wasn’t what the caller had meant, and he wonders if this tendency he has of interpreting plain-speaking as eccentricity comes from the same bubbling genes that are playfully drawing down the shutters in a bankrupt sector of his mother’s brain. He went to collect her. She was sitting at a table in a backroom, with a cup of steaming Nescafé. In three weeks, he has to take her for a test. A vision recurs of his leading her by the hand to a destination that has slipped his mind.
Someone he cannot get out of his head is Squires. Not his real name, of course. Assignment codeword Beaver (the department is into aquatic mammals at that moment). POE on the road between San Bernardo and Racagua. But no DOC yet. Because Squires has vanished and his PTBE, one Eduardo Miguel Villacorta, is at that moment meeting a representative of the World Bank following the swift penetration of an escort, one Angelo D, and a hearty lunch. Squires is normally so reliable: in Africa, he relieved two with a single bullet while they were in flagrante delicto, like one of those mad war heroes beloved of the Daily Telegraph’s obit column (‘Old Harrovian Who Deflected Sniper’s Bullets With His Sabre To Wipe Out German Gun Emplacement’). Squires is outstanding in at least two senses. If only Cultural Services (Overseas) might combine with Manley’s section, Squires could be circuitously brought home disguised as a Somerset troubadour, with Lydia’s innocent connivance. At least, he thinks her connivance is innocent. Squires, of course, though he still has to be monitored, has been on loan to the Americans. Like the whole fucking Service.
Someone must be praising Manley’s way with words, because Lydia approaches his room one day for advice on a Press release she is concocting. He is encouraged to fraternise by people his colleagues and Lydia never dream exist.
‘It just doesn’t look right,’ she says, adopting a stance of what seems like real frustration, her right foot cocked on its very high heel.
‘It’s a plural possessive,’ he says. ‘They never do. Try this.’
He reaches for her pencil and writes in an alternative. ‘D’you know, I don’t think you are worried about this at all but simply want to bask for a few seconds in my Solar Zone,’ he says, his head still down.
He wonders if it sounds bold; he doesn’t feel bold saying it.
Lydia’s impressively apparent vacancy even stretches to pretending not to be insulted. ‘Sounds exciting!’ she says.
‘In fact it was once remarked at a boozy after-work gathering that the distaff consensus reckoned I was the office’s most fanciable male.’
‘Really! The what census?’
It is possible that Lydia sees a different Manley from the one that stares back at him in the shaving-mirror each morning, a case, so he thinks, of the flaws being in the detail - such frequent and thorough inspections have proved it to be so - and the generality or the unacknowledged, clearly virtues, arising only through the interest of another.
‘If you asked me what I was doing after work, I’d have to say nothing,’ she tells him on another occasion.
‘What are you doing after work?’
The road from San Bernardo to Racagua is somehow more interesting on traditional maps - the crisp, crackly sort that appear to have been ironed into their handy compactness - than in satellite pictures, to which Manley has only irregular access. The camera never lies but it expresses no natural flair in the telling. The decoding of paper maps, however much they sometimes lack detail on the ground (Extent of Available Information), allows the imagination to flutter. The department’s love of old technology is a species of the arcane, always an aid to secrecy, and through his magnifying-glass Manley can see how the contours gather around that U-shaped bend in the road, rucking it into the steep hillside; he can almost hear Squires panting as he climbs, with his hunter’s gear, a few steps behind the guide, who stops, turns and grins his white toothsome grin at the other’s halting progress every few yards. An hour away but already turning the heads of goatherds, the two black Mercedes saloons are heading into the mountains, the regime’s paradoxically conspicuous way of avoiding trouble. Villacorta is in the second car, its pennant flying. Such garish colours, such ostentation. Also, Villacorta always sits in the nearside rear seat, often nodding off with his head pressed against the window. How can Squires have missed, if he actually squeezed the trigger at all?
But apart from waiting for the results of the investigation he has set in train, there is little he can do for the moment. It is that time, necessarily brief, when he becomes the most important link in the operation. In its line of warning buttons, his is the only one that is red and flashing. Not that everyone else higher up are tapping pen on notepad while waiting impatiently on his intelligence. For an even briefer period, he alone will be privy to the Squires blunder, if blunder it is. He has never met Squires - thank God - which is why the multilingual thug has become for him an imagined figure in a landscape both exotic and picturesque; or rather, in the present circumstances, a figure which has momentarily decamped from the landscape for good or ill. It may be that Squires, having grown suspicious or been compromised, has left the scene or aborted the exercise just in time and is now in hiding.
He sees Lydia approaching the stock cupboard, the combat-green steel structure that supplies the needs of people who are each sworn to the secrecy of their sly departmental functions. He his more than ever convinced that her responsibility for barrier-breaking thespians and her cack-handed way with words might be a front, her way of bending down for the slabs of copy-paper and flashing her glorious toosh at him a means of consolidating a persona of ingratiating artlessness. The three team-members who have returned to their stations are too engrossed to notice her.
‘Lydia’ he calls. ‘Come’.
She clacks towards his door, her swishing bolero-jacket reminding him of a bullfighter, in her case the supreme example of a misnomer. Apparently.
‘Later,’ she whispers, and walks away, waving without looking back.
His two hours are extended by thirty minutes, but it is not Florida relay that comes through; it is the hospital. His mother has turned up for her test two weeks early and cannot identify herself without pulling at the chain around her neck so tightly it is in danger of being torn off. She has no shoes on. It is a fair distance but she’s walked it. He listens to a disembodied lecture: ‘The brain is a funny thing, a sort of roof. While some tiles slip off, never to be replaced, others cling on so fast that not even a hurricane could shift them.’
He’s heard it before but feels obliged, like a child, and says, ‘Thank you.’ Then he phones some relatives, a friend or two.
The trouble with a botched assignment is that procedures became delinquent. Villacorta is known to suppress details of attempts on his life, so there will be nothing on the wires. Nothing about Squires on the wires. Perhaps Squires has gone over to the other side. He grins. Aunty Vera, his mother’s sister, is a spiritualist and familiar with that territory. Or perhaps he’s renewed acquaintance with Angelo D, to whom he has been pillow-talking. Whatever.
He will have to go to the hospital. They will have to keep her in over night.
Lydia insists on his wearing his pullover as she squats on the bed, waiting. She looks different with her hair down. In fact, her thumping physicality has routed her waywardness with words and rendered it unimportant. Only in the office, her flesh marshalled and packaged, does her verbal floundering beguile or, in his case, amuse, irritate and intrigue. He wishes love transcended all, but the fact that the very statement sounds like a vacuous pop lyric almost guarantees that it never will. If Lydia has depths, they may be conceivably murky.
Afterwards, as he studies the ceiling, he can feel her scrutinizing him. She wriggles, as a prelude to saying something.
‘What’s going to happen?’ she asks
‘Don’t know. Nothing good in the long run.’
‘Can they do anything? To retrieve the position, I mean.’
‘Not really. In fact, it’s a bloody mess and it’ll get worse.’
Before nodding off he lifts his knees, making the high sierras rise from the duvet. Her walking fingers begin exploring, clambering ever upwards to the heights, where she stops, smiles at him and lets her hand flop back, as though she has lots of time. She notes that his eyes are glazed with unspilled tears.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and music critic, having worked as a reporter and sub-editor on a daily newspaper. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction. His début story collection, Funderland, was published by Parthian in 2011 to enthusiastic reviews in the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, among others, and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize.