Besieged Fortress : Next Part
Laurie, in England once more, finds someone to confide in.
It struck Laurie, back in London for the first time in nearly two years, that the sheer exhausted drabness of the place had increased well beyond that which he had remembered.
The dragging hopelessness of the city reflected off the people one bumped into on the streets, or who jostled one on the Tube; their faces wan, their eyes dull, each locked in his own dreary preoccupations. He found himself continually touching the cover of the battered book Philippe had given him as though it was a sacred talisman. The war, even his curtailed and limping share of it, had had its own texture, its own urgency, its own meaning: it had possessed a sort of vigour even (perhaps especially) when one hated it most. This nothingness was, he supposed, the Post-War for which they had all hoped for so long. And, he realised as a kind of belated truth, the Post-War was by definition amorphous; it had no boundaries, and therefore, apparently, no end.
It was a relief to see that Challans, at least, was unchanged; the stocky, dark little man got up and came round from behind his littered desk to pump Laurie's hand vigorously.
Half apologetically Laurie pulled from his battered, bulging attaché case a by-now somewhat tired brown paper package which Annuciata - gathering, somehow, through the quick telepathy of the Rock and her own native instincts, that this meeting would be of importance to him - had thrust into his hands on the dockside.
"My - er - housekeeper - insisted I bring this for you. For - ah - 'los pocitos'. "
It was only the sight of Challans' face as he sneaked a quick glance into the half-open parcel (Annuciata's skill lay not in gift-wrapping, and the Customs inspectors at Marseilles had been thorough, in any event) which brought home to Laurie how much his country had sacrificed in the recent struggle. Good grief; it was only a dozen oranges or so and half a kilo of cheap turrón and a few trifles of that sort, not all the wonders of Aladdin's cave at the pantomime!
"Very decent of you to think of the little brats at all, Odell," Challans said. "Can't have been easy to get this through Dover with all these asinine regulations to trip a chap up these days, hey?"
Laurie murmured something deprecating - a local saw (based, he had been surprised to learn lately, upon a saying of Pompey) to the effect that to the Gibraltarian it was necessary to smuggle, but not necessary to live - and found Challans's bird-bright eyes fixed beadily upon him.
"Out with it, Odell," Challans said briskly. "I can't do anything about any sort of trouble my clients may be in unless they're prepared to give me chapter and verse."
His mouth must have gaped open because Challans laughed openly.
"Odell! I've been doing this job since a kind and disreputable uncle got me a few introductions once I'd recovered from being gassed off the Line in April '18. Don't try to come over like a Girton virgin experiencing the boatshed lofts in May Week for the first time . From the minute you walked through that door I've known you were in trouble. So spit it out, man. Behind on the book and can't think of anything to write, is that it?"
Laurie sank, weak-kneed, into one of the two easy-chairs towards the rear of the office Challans flung himself energetically into the other one. By some almost supernatural agency Miss Radcliffe, Challans' efficient secretary, made her appearance at that moment with a tray bearing tea-pot, milk-jug and two cups, deposited it on the occasional table between the two chairs, and departed. Challans poured for them both in silence, which Laurie was compelled to break.
"Yes, but it's not that."
Challans raised an interrogative eyebrow.
It's Longenhurst," Laurie muttered weakly. Challens exhaled.
"Is it, indeed?"
There was a note in his voice which was hard to interpret. Laurie raised his eyebrows. Challans shrugged.
"Well? As you know, he's only Morris's wife's nephew. And which of us doesn't have connections-by-marriage we'd rather disavow, given half a chance, eh, Odell?"
That particular question caught like salt on a gaping wound. The vision of the Rev. Straike caught in his throat, leaving him momentarily speechless.
Challans looked at him.
"Come on," he said, "spill. Or do you need me to fill in the blanks for you? The execrable Longenhurst has been talking as though you were his own personal discovery for some time now. I suppose he thinks he has to do his best to flatter his own judgment given that so many of his recent swans have turned out to be geese. The trouble is he's started to believe his own advertising."
Challans took a sip of tea.
"I suppose he showed up in Gib and tried to trade off the obligation he expected you ought to feel towards him, and you told him what was what and he threatened to turn nasty. Be frank, Odell, was that about the size of it?"
Laurie nodded helplessly. Challans laughed.
"You aren't alone, you know. You might not know it, but the rumour on the Bloomsbury cocktail party circuit is that he didn't precisely go off to Tangier simply to "immerse himself in the local culture", whatever he might have said."
Laurie's voice had an edge which startled even him.
"Hm. Well, he was certainly immersed pretty deeply last time I saw him."
Challans grinned. "Yes, I can assure you the cocktail party set have picked up on that one, too. Nevertheless, the fact is that Morris and he haven't been seeing eye to eye for some time - and I know for a fact that a number of Morris's authors have told him that if they have to deal with Longenhurst for the future they'll be seeing what Faber or Longman can do for them for their next works. And they say that Morris and his wife may be getting divorced in the New Year, which can't help Longenhurst's position in the firm."
Laurie finished his tea and leaned back in the armchair with an assumed air of nonchalance.
"It sounds as though attending cocktail parties was a rather important part of your job."
"Regrettably, yes. Though not as important as making sure my authors don't go off their feed and let themselves down in the final straight."
He leant forward, his face suddenly serious.
"You know, Odell, absent my commission I could have wished your first novel hadn't been the runaway success it was - or at least, that it hadn't been that sort of success."
He lit a cigarette and held his case out for Laurie, who accepted.
"In my experience, Odell, most people's first novel is more or less bad."
He must have been looking mortified, because Challans smiled.
"Yours was a lot better than the general run of first novels, but still - there was a lot of clutter in it you no doubt needed to get off your chest before you could really start writing. Your trouble was that it sold - thanks in no small part to the good Bishop -"
Laurie felt his mouth twisting up wrly. Challans had noticed it too, evidently.
"I don't doubt that when you came to decide what to leave in and what to discard when writing the next one that the question about whether you might be losing that golden touch was lurking around the back of your mind - just where it has no business to be for a writer at your stage of his career!"
There was too much truth in that. Laurie began to say something, but Challans stopped him with an economical gesture sketched in the air.
"The problem, it seems to me, was that the Bishop found you an audience, but they were - if you'll forgive my saying so, Odell - rather too specialised an audience. At least for you, at this stage in your writing career."
There was quite clearly nothing Laurie could say to that. Uneasily, he remembered a party, long ago, and conclusions drawn then and never resiled from.
Challans got to his feet. "Come on! For some reason whatever else seems to become more and more strictly rationed gin seems to be still obtainable. I'll take you round the corner to the Ring O
Bells, and you can show me whatever it is you've been writing when it wasn't your novel."
"But I said - "
Challans laughed. "Odell - I'm sure there's more in that attaché case than smuggled nougat. I said - I've been looking after authors for a long time. You may try to tell me that you haven't written a line in the last three years - but then, my wife claims to be an insomniac, but every night when she tells me she hasn't slept a wink all night I can distinctly remember an hour or so when I've been lying await waiting for her to stop snoring."
Despite himself, Laurie laughed. It was true; there were a few sketches and snippets buried in there - things he had jotted down over his time on the Rock. But none of it led anywhere; Challans would see that sooner or later.
He pushed himself to his feet and reached for his hat.
"I'm afraid I'm a bit of a hopeless case, Challans," he said. "But provided you allow me to buy the gins, you can try to convince me otherwise."
They made their way down the stairs and out into the chill of the drab street outside.