THE POLISH CLUB, KENSINGTON
It was September 2002, and south-west France had been struck by storms and ﬂoods. Nîmes airport, from which Sam and Letty had been booked to ﬂy, was still closed. Letty was Sam’s recently acquired French daughter. More proﬁcient than he was at using the internet, she had secured them an AirEire ﬂight from Nice to Luton. Sam said if Letty’s mother, Simone (who had never been his wife), would drive them from Uzès to Avignon they would take a train from there to Nice. But Simone insisted the ﬂoods had put her in crisis mode and she would drive them all the way.
She did that, delivered them in good time and there were airport farewells: ﬁrst Simone and Letty, mother and daughter, fond and somehow eﬃcient in the French way – lots of mwa mwa, left and right, and au’voir and à la prochaine; then Sam and Simone, the long-ago lovers long since parted and gone their separate ways, awkward now, even embarrassed, and unsatisfactory. There were so many questions he would have liked to ask.
And then there had been Jean-Claude, the rejected boyfriend in his black leathers, hanging about on the perimeter looking sorry for himself. Was Letty going to ignore him completely? Yes – until the last minute, before they went through into Security, when she softened a little, and while her parents watched, went over to him, kissed him on one cheek and then the other, but barely touching either – after which Sam could see by the wagging ﬁnger and the nodding head that she was telling him it was all over between them; she was getting on with her life and he must get on with his.
AirEire’s advantage was said to be that it was cheap, but with the rebooking fee, and because Letty’s luggage was a few grams over the impractical limit, it came up costing more than a regular ﬂight. Predictable, and no choice really – Letty had had to take what she could ﬁnd. So for the price of something better she had secured for them the sardine experience.
Sam was not a nervous traveller but he found it disturbing – so many people and so much luggage jammed into a plane that looked as though it might have been bought from the asset-stripped airline of a failed East African state and repainted to suggest that cheerfulness and colour will defeat gravity. Banana palms (perhaps) had become outsize shamrocks; there was a very big “little green man” in a tall hat over the wing, and a verse –
To an isle in the water With her I would ﬂy
W. B. Yeats
on the fuselage.
As they boarded Sam caught, or thought he did, over, or through, or despite, the smell of diesel, a last scent of lavender from the hills, and perhaps just a faint waft of eucalypt.
They found their seats, and while the ritual warnings and instructions about “the unlikely event of an emergency” were got through in a lovely breathy Irish-English he pulled a book out of his bag to settle his mind, to focus it. Lettres de mon moulin by Alphonse Daudet. It was part of the programme Letty had set for him to improve his French. She had even persuaded Simone to leave in good time and divert a little between Uzès and Nice so they could take a look at Daudet’s famous mill on its stony slope where the stories had been written; and to drive through Tarascon, home of Daudet’s quixotic hero Tartarin.
The takeoff was long and slow – a lumbering shuddering run down a strip that seemed to go on and on, sea to the left, white apartment blocks with hills behind to the right, and then late, almost too late, the lift-off, up and out and away banking left over the sea; the slow wide arc, climbing all the time, a huge circle that crammed the windows with blue and white, the blue dotted with small craft and cut with slashes of wake, while AirEire ﬂight 6337 lined itself up and levelled itself off, north and west for London. And there now, directly below for a few minutes, were the rock faces of the Alpes Maritimes frowning, folding and tumbling down to the Mediterranean with its hazy pale blues and dark turquoise stripes; and between mountain and sea, the terracotta littoral that was Nice and the Côte d’Azur.
Sam, who had “done” French at school and then lost most of the little it had given him, remembered Daudet’s story of M. Séguin’s goat – “La chèvre de M. Séguin”. This nice little animal (the tone was cosy and the goat spoke ﬂuent French) had been so determined to be free she ignored all the warnings her owner gave about the wolf, and the goats he had eaten, and escaped from the locked stable through a window. So she found again, and enjoyed, the freedom of the hills, the delicious grasses, the bluebells and foxgloves and the fast-ﬂowing streams – until the wolf came. Then (Sam remembered it from school days, but thought of it now as if it might have contained a warning to those who break out of the stable in search of freedom) the brave little white goat with her inadequate horns fought the wolf and kept him at bay until dawn, when at last she succumbed, bloody and exhausted, and was eaten.
He chose that story. It would make his start with his new text easy. He read slowly, checking unfamiliar words in the glossary and notes. He got to the point where the goat heard a noise behind her, “C’était le loup” – it was the wolf – and closed his eyes.
The Luton landing when it came was a bump-down rather than a smooth glide, bringing alarmed yelps, nervous laughter and a ripple of mocking applause from the sardines. While they were hurried off by staff who had to make the turnaround quick, Sam prepared his mind for the next hurdle. Lacking the E.C. passport that would let his French daughter past the barrier without interruption, he would have to present his New Zealand “Uruwhenua” and front up to the question, “What is the purpose of your visit?”
Once he had replied, “The visit is the purpose.” The questioner had been a Sikh in a burnt-umber turban and the smart reply had not aided swift passage. Sam had been stood to one side to be dealt with later by someone senior. Hadn’t there been a war – two wars – with Germany in living (or only recently dead) memory? And if it was true we had all “moved on” so sides taken then were of no account now, why was she, H.M., still New Zealand’s Big Cheese? He’d been through all this with Letty, and knew she would be waiting nervously on the other side, signalling – yes, there she was now, ﬁnger to lips and a pleading frown that said, “Please don’t!” This was not the moment to ride that particular hobby horse.
“What is the purpose of your visit, Mr Nola?” The questioner this time was Euro, like himself – pure pale English, probably, or Anglo-Celt, unlovely and with wolf-like intent.
While Sam described, laboriously and in non-confrontational tones, his “present situation”, that it was “under review”, that he had “interim status” for his employment at Interbank America, there was a shadowy otherself explaining that he had escaped from M. Séguin’s barn in order to savour freedom and the mountain grasses . . .
But the wolf wasn’t listening. Those killer eyes were already on the next in the queue – a dark tan couple, anxious and discomposed, and with two small children.
“Next.” The stamp came down on Sam’s Uruwhenua.
“Good hunting,” he said over his shoulder as he walked towards where Letty was waiting.
She hugged his arm and gave it a small reproving shake.
“I did nothing,” he said in answer.
“Your face,” she said.
“I can’t help my face.”
“Yes you can.”
“Man, proud man,” he quoted, “dressed in a little brief authority . . .”
“Look at them,” she said, pointing to the armed police with their padded jackets and automatic weapons. “They have serious things to worry about and you want to make a fuss about their harmless questions.”
Well yes, it was only a year since 9/11. “I made no fuss,” he said. “And if they insist on what you call armless kestyons, they should be ready to put up with my legless answers.”
“Legless?” Since she didn’t hear her own dropped aitches she often missed his jokes about them.
Beyond the doors the next coach to Marble Arch and Victoria was already humming and stirring, eager to be on its way. Everything was on time and on target. It was one of those lovely late afternoons that seem to happen often now that the globe is warming, when the English end-of-summer simmers as it used to only in works of ﬁction by novelists with initials (always two) rather than forenames – P.G., E.M., D.H., L.P.
They handed their bags to the driver who had a ﬁerce black moustache over ﬁercely white teeth. He grabbed at them, slung them under with what might have been an angry ﬂourish, and barked a word Sam didn’t catch. Sam turned with an enquiring look and the driver pointed, silent and displeased, to the steps up into the coach.
Letty chose their seat and took out her book. Sam got behind a copy of the Guardian, wrestling it around himself. The news was full of the P.M.’s latest alarms about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and unwillingness to comply with the U.N. weapons inspectors. When Sam next looked out they were cruising swift and smooth past ﬁelds that alternated green and gold with, now and then, patches of dense woodland, heavy foliage unruﬄed by any breeze. He could see the driver in the mirror, one hand on the wheel and the ﬁngers of the other smoothing his moustache, as if calming it.
The vehicle rose and fell end-to-end, a liner (land-liner) cresting the waves. Sam returned to the Guardian.
Afterwards he was not sure he hadn’t dozed for a while; perhaps he and Letty both had. In any case he became aware of some kind of argument, an angry altercation at the front of the bus, the driver being challenged about something – possibly the route he had taken, or had failed to take – offence given on both sides, and then all at once they were in the midst of a crisis, veering off up a ramp from the main route and into a side road that led in turn into a narrow lane. They were all hurled sideways and now were racing through, brushing ﬁrst one side, then the other. Bushes, hedgerows and bracken scratched at paintwork and ﬂicked across windows. They were bouncing, thrown up out of their seats. There were complaints, shouts, “Oh I say . . .” and “Look here . . .” and “What the fuck . . .” Passengers were clinging to their seats. The driver in the mirror was angry and wild-eyed.
The lane closed in on either side. Sam could see nothing beyond hedges and shoulder-high cow-parsley. Then, in only a few seconds, the view opened on the left, the land dropping towards what might have been a stream. The coach was slowing now, approaching an old wooden ﬁve-bar gate, but not stopping. They went through it, over it into a ﬁeld, almost in slow motion, the wooden bars cracking audibly under the wheels. A herd of half-grown steers lurched and bounded this way and that, avoiding the giant intruder, then turned and watched, with the kind of intelligent interest the young take in anything new, as it came to a stop under a tree.
By now there were yells of protest and complaint. The driver grabbed a small bag and his jacket. He stopped only long enough to deliver some ﬁnal insult to his antagonist at the front and was gone. The late sun glinted on his oiled hair as he stopped only to ﬁddle with a switch out there. The door closed behind him and he disappeared back in the direction from which they had come.
“What did he say?” Sam asked the man across the aisle, but he was already deep in argument with his mobile phone.
The passengers sat looking at one another, glad the punishing ride had ended. There was indignation, but astonishment too, and even ﬂutters of amusement. It seemed so far outside the normal order of things, they didn’t know how to respond.
“Has he locked us in?” a woman asked; and then, in a slightly shriller voice, “I hope he’s not going to blow us up.”
All who were not yet on their feet stood up at that, and began to make moves towards the front. It took a few moments to ﬁnd how to open the door. Voices were raised, there was pushing and elbowing.
As the door sighed itself open, moving out and sideways, they pushed and jostled into the lovely late-afternoon ﬁeld that smelled of cow and crushed pennyroyal. One or two removed bags from the side compartments; others left them there. The sense of panic was not quite past until they were all some way from the coach, up on the crest of the hill beyond which the land dropped down to the stream. There they stopped and turned, a group of panting people feeling variously confused, foolish, embarrassed. Angry too. Indignation would soon take over again.
And there was the coach, comfortably parked under the splendid tree, the cattle gathering around as though they might be next to board.
Mobile phones were busy now. Men swished up and down through the dry summer grass, shouting into their hands. The women seemed to stay each in one place, crouching or bending forward, but also shouting needlessly. Emergency services were alerted; the bus company was called. Families, business associates, lovers, were warned that someone would be late.
A sort of William Hague with the head of a comic-book alien was saying, “Yes, my dear,” – the “my dear” was full of Yorkshire irony – “as a matter of fact, I am. Alone. Alone with a couple of dozen other poor bastards and a herd of cows.” And he clicked her dead, a man telling the improbable truth for once. How satisfying!
“Those are not cows,” Sam told him.
The alien looked at him, blinked twice, and turned away.
To Letty Sam said, “They’re not cows you know.”
He borrowed her mobile and called his friend Charles Goddard. He and Letty were supposed to meet Charles and others for a literary reading at the Serpentine Gallery, after which there was to be supper. “We’re going to be late,” he said.
Charles, already at the gallery, wanted to know where he was calling from.
“We’re in a ﬁeld in deepest . . . I’m not sure. Possibly Hertfordshire.”
“That’s progress. Is it nice?”
Sam looked around. “Yes it’s nice. Some corner of a foreign ﬁeld that is forever England.”
“Are you in England or France, Sam?”
“No no – England, deﬁnitely. But that’s foreign for me. I’ve just come through immigration.”
“You need to get yourself an E.C. passport.”
“I’m working on it.”
“And you’re in . . . a ﬁeld. Did you mean that?”
“We got dropped in the middle of nowhere by a furiously angry bus driver, and now we’re being held hostage by a herd of cattle.”
“What are you talking about, Sambo?”
Sam tried to explain. But where did you begin? “In fact,” he said, “I’m not sure what happened. Something incendiary was said. Umbrage was taken.”
“Umbrage.” Charles savoured the word. He was laughing.
“High dudgeon in fact. But no violence. He just left us here.
“You remember the Larkin poem? ‘He just walked out on the whole crowd.’”
Charles interrupted: “Sorry, Sam. Have to switch off. We’re moving indoors. We’ll keep your places for dinner. 8 o’clock if you can make it. O.K.? Ciao for now. Ciao-ciao.”
Sam and Letty deposited their luggage at Sam’s ﬂat and took the taxi on to Exhibition Road. The Polish Club was a ﬁne building, with a terrace looking out over gardens at the back, a splendid staircase to the upper ﬂoor ballroom, heavy-framed paintings, a bar and restaurant, with tables inside and out.
The friends, two couples, Charles and Githa, Jake and Jan, were sitting at a table at the end of a long room looking out on gardens that were fading into darkness and reﬂections. They had kept two places but were deep in conversation.
“The arseholes are lying, Charles. Where’s your brain, you cunt.”
This was Jake Latimer, an actor with an actor’s voice and delivery, so it boomed among the ﬂowers and echoed off the moulded ceilings. “We’re being lied to every fucking day. They have self-correcting software. If they gap for a minute and type a truthful statement it inserts a ‘not’. Tony Blair can’t do a shit that’s honest.”
And then, because he’d caught sight of the newcomers: “Do sit down. Here – those chairs . . .”
They sat. The two women made welcoming motions but for the moment Jake was not to be stopped. He was turning to Sam now, while pointing across the table. “Our Charles believes in these fucking W.M.D.s. Unlike Blair he doesn’t believe in God – which I understand and appreciate – but he believes in Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction . . .”
“I didn’t say that,” Charles grumbled. “This is bullshit. I said anything’s possible and until we know for certain . . .”
“We should mobilise an army? Two armies? Ten fucking armies.”
“No, but . . .”
“We know where the oil is. Where are the fucking weapons?”
Charles sighed and leaned back in his chair. “How about you lay off for now, Jake? Give it a rest.”
Jake looked around the table. His face expressed astonishment, indignation. “Is this the issue of the moment or fucking what?”
There was silence. “I’ve just been reading the Guardian,” Sam said. “And yes, it’s the issue of the moment.”
“Thank you.” Vindicated, Jake waited for his challenge about the oil to be taken up. It wasn’t, so he took a different tack.
“Tell me,” he said to Sam, “since you’re a clever fellow – why would a nation capable of producing Rutherford and the All Blacks name themselves after a hairy fruit?”
Sam felt himself bridling. Hadn’t he been supporting the prick? “We don’t,” he said. “Or I don’t. And the kiwi is not a fruit. It’s a bird.”
“Apteryx,” Githa said. “Wingless.” Githa was Indian. She was slim and beautiful, quick and intelligent, with lovely dark eyes and a beautiful bow of even white teeth. Sometimes it seemed to Sam that Githa knew everything.
Jake frowned. He didn’t care what a kiwi was. He cared about Iraq, and oil, and those imaginary W.M.D.s.
“When we were kids,” Charles said in a tone of wanting to help, “what’s now called a kiwi fruit used to be called a Chinese gooseberry.”
Jake shook his head. “Good,” he said. “Excellent. Thank you. I needed to know that.” He poured the last of the wine around the table and raised a hand to no-one in particular, to the room at large, for more. He looked for a moment like a forlorn football player claiming he’d been fouled. There was another silence while everyone sipped.
“How was the reading?” Letty asked brightly. “Did we miss something special?”
“The reading?” It was quite dark out there now, and Jan was detained by her own reﬂection in the window. “It was O.K.” She ﬂicked her hair out at the sides. “Wasn’t it?”
The other three nodded as if recollecting something that had happened last year. “Yes,” Charles conﬁrmed. “It was very good. Brilliant, actually.”
London, Sam reﬂected, was a place where so many things were “brilliant” you lost track of them ﬁve minutes after they happened – during which ﬁve more brilliant things had happened, actually.
A waiter had seen Jake’s semaphore and was hovering. Letty and Sam ordered pastas and salads and Jake another bottle of wine.
Githa said to Letty, “And Sam told Charles you were in a ﬁeld?”
“It’s true,” Letty said. “We were ’ijacked.”
She dropped the aitch. The story had to be told and Sam left it to her. Without the aitches it was more colourful. Now and then she made an effort and inserted one where it didn’t belong. Their ﬂight had been with HairEire; but the coach ride, careering through the lane, brushing bushes on either side, was “air-raising”.
“’e was so angry,” she said. “Someone said something to ’im at the front of the coach, maybe about the Koran, or 9/11 . . . I don’t know what, but ’e lost ’is, you know – completely, and just left us there. And then a woman thought ’e was going to blow us to smithereens.”
Sam took it up. “We waited in that ﬁeld. The police came – sirens and ﬂashing lights. A replacement driver was sent. There was an apology from the company – forms to be ﬁlled in so we could reclaim our fares. Cops did a sweep of the bus . . .”
“A sweep?” Jan said.
“Looking for explosives . . .”
“Of course,” Jake said, his voice heavy with irony and disapproval. “Black moustache, swarthy skin – a Muslim terrorist. What else?”
“Muslim terrorists exist,” Charles said. “Don’t they? They’re not little green men who come down out of frying pans or ﬂying saucers.”
Jake picked up his glass and stared at it. “I have measured out my life with frying pans.” He sipped, and savoured. “We’re being played upon.”
He looked around at them all, one by one, inviting them to disagree. “Fear is the terrorist.”
“I call it the 9/11 effect.” This was Sam, over breakfast, explaining to Letty, who had stayed the night in his small spare bedroom, the change in his two friends, Jake and Charles. A year ago they had seen eye to eye on most things, politics in particular; now they could hardly talk to one another without falling out and shouting. “Both Labour supporters. But Charles has stayed loyal to Blair. Jake thinks – well, you heard it. Blair is George Bush’s poodle.”
“Jake’s very forceful.”
“Big voice, lots of swearing. When I agree with him it seems to upset him – I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s my job – he probably thinks anyone who does my kind of work . . . But about Iraq and Blair, he’s right of course.”
Letty looked at her watch. “I have to go mon papa.” She kissed his brow and began to clear away the dishes.
“Leave them. I’ve got time.”
She pecked him again and headed for her room.
“Bye au’voir,” she called a minute later from the door. “See you Friday night if you like the idea.”
“I do. I like. See you then.”
He leaned forward and through the window watched her emerge from the front door, down the steps, and turn right and right again towards Paddington. She paused before the second turn, getting her scarf right.
“Your Perdita,” Charles had called her.
Excerpted from Risk by C.K. Stead. Copyright © 2012 by C.K. Stead.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.