These Two Men
They came today, knocked on my door around mid-morning, and when I opened it they told me without any preamble that I was dead.
There they stood in the hallway, their bland interchangeable faces glowing in the half-light, these two men, these bearers of the worst possible news. And as I stood there I realized there was no doubting them; they already had a rooted, immovable presence and their open-shouldered stance blocked off the entire corridor. And yet I had no fear. On the contrary I found myself swept up in a sudden lightness of spirit that coursed through me, a blithe expansiveness of mood that had me inviting them into my flat. I stood back and motioned towards the sofa under the window where I might get a better look at my two visitors, these two sudden men.
They came as a pair – this much was immediately evident. Both wore suits and were clean-shaven and I guessed there was about ten years between them; the older one, the heavier one who had given me the bad news in the hall, I judged to be around my own age; his partner, I put in his late twenties. Both appeared to have mastered the paradox of establishing a solid, physical presence while at the same time effacing any specific detail in which this presence might be grounded. They were clean-shaven, they wore suits – that was as much as I would ever be able to say about them. And yet there was something of the comic double act, also, a complementary ease in the way they sat there, which convinced me I was about to witness one of those deft, professional routines that was no doubt worn smooth and seamless by much time and practice.And as I stood there gazing at them, I reflected that this was something new; I had not lived the sort of life that drew men in suits towards me; uniforms yes, suits no.
‘So,’ I said airily, ‘in what way am I dead? Spiritually perhaps, possibly metaphorically: what way exactly?’ I was in unexpectedly good form.
All promise of light comedy evaporated completely in the toneless delivery of the older man.
He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his voice came across like dry sand running in a pipe.
‘It would be a mistake to understand yourself dead in any partial, metaphorical or analogical sense,’ he began. ‘There is only one way in which someone is dead and that is literally, totally and absolutely. Such is the case with you at this very moment. And, I would advise, the sooner you dismiss all evidence which says otherwise, the sooner we will all be able to move on.’ He sat back and placed both his hands on his knees.
By rights a fit of laughter should have taken hold of me then. The ludicrousness of what he had just said was verified in every atom of my being; in fact my whole circumstance at that particular moment could hardly have served a more vivid testimony to my life and its ongoing continuance. For starters there was this pain in my lower back, which throbbed warmly after I had slept awkwardly on it; the apple I had eaten for breakfast had lodged a nagging piece of itself between my teeth and would not come loose; not ten minutes ago I had hung up the phone on my girlfriend and earlier still, I remembered, I had made plans to meet a friend for a drink that night; my leg … I caught myself on abruptly.
That I had been pushed so easily into this survey of myself and my circumstances says something of my visitors’ confidence in themselves and my own aptness for confusion.
I actually found myself stammering and asking for some further evidence to support their outlandish claim.
The older of the two went to the table and spread across it a series of pale documents; he did this with such economy of movement that it flummoxed totally whatever understanding I might have had of them. To my bewildered gaze there appeared to be a series of spiraling figures and indices, endless columns of data and other graduated observations, all waxing and waning and spiraling across six or seven sheets of ruled paper …
Somewhere amid these convulsive figures I thought I glimpsed something of a life’s ineffable fleetness but I could not be sure of this.
Before I had grasped the idea clearly, I was distracted by the younger man who, till now, had busied himself looking out the window. Now he turned to me with a wan smile.
‘It could be worse,’ he said evenly, ‘it could be a lot worse.’
He gazed round at the flat, appearing to turn a full three-sixty without moving his feet and as he did so I had an unnerving sense of displacement; it was as if I was seeing not just the room with his eyes, but also the life it inscribed. I found myself acutely ashamed of the worn furniture and general shabbiness of the whole place.
There did not appear to me a surface or appliance that was not stained or grimy in one way or another. Indeed, it appeared to me as if the entire flat was held together by stains and scuffmarks. Everything looked unspeakably dreary in the grey morning light and I had no doubt but that it smelled, also. What sort of a life was responsible for that kind of shabbiness, what sort of life passed through these rooms and left behind such filth? I realized that the question was not properly my own or wholly rhetorical but that it belonged to the younger man at the window. It was as if I was hearing his voice inside my head; his dull reproving tone. ‘Look at yourself,’ he was saying, ‘pushing forty and nothing to show for it. No wife or child, nothing completed or finished; one project after another aborted or abandoned in one fashion or other; nothing but false starts, revisions and amendments. Furthermore, there is neither family nor loved ones to grieve for you.’
He spread his hands wide in a gesture of finality. ‘You’ve had your chance and you’ve wasted it and when all is said and done you will be no great loss, least of all to yourself.’
Being spoken to like this in your own kitchen should rouse an ordinary man to a fit of righteousness. But it seemed that their power over me was so absolute I was completely incapable of any proper response to his charge. And so smooth was their dismantling of my psyche that I began to suspect there was something uncanny about them both. Now, what had appeared at first to be a deft routine with all the sheen and polish of professional repetition, might in reality be the seamless, unhesitant unity of a single being. The sinuous ease with which they picked up each other’s thoughts and this tendency of one to absent himself in the background while the other spoke had me wondering if, in fact, these two men were not conjoined in some mysterious way beyond ordinary comprehension.
After dwelling uneasily on this for what must have been several moments, I was brought back to the situation in hand by the giddy realization that, incredibly, I was being offered a job of some sort – or, more accurately, I was being recruited to some sort of organization. The older of the two was now addressing me and had begun wooing me with a distinctly backhanded compliment. The thrust of it was that while he recognized I had proved to be an indifferent living man, he had no doubt, and indeed some confidence, that I would prove to be a very good dead man, whatever that might be. Indeed, he went so far as to say that, contrary to all appearances, my life had not been a complete waste of time and that, in more than one instance, it had served evidence that hinted strongly that I might be the very man they were looking for.What evidence, I wanted to know.
‘Your politics, for instance,’ the younger one said.
I guffawed and shook my head happily, glad to have any small advantage over them – nothing was too trivial at this stage.
‘I have no politics,’ I declaimed stoutly. ‘I have never voted nor do I have any party affiliations.’ ‘We know that,’ the younger one said, ‘but you have taken up several reasoned positions. Your attitude to Cuba and North Korea, your implacable opposition to totalitarianisms, left or right …’
I guffawed once more, now gathering in confidence. ‘And I get a prize for that? Since when did drink-talk become a “position” or indeed “implacable opposition”, for that matter?’
‘It all becomes part of the wider configuration. There was also your support for the second invasion of Iraq; your heroic vigil in front of Sky News was noted. And there was that incident at the funeral of your friend’s father. Your defense of coalition forces was noted and appreciated.’
‘You had a series of bitter exchanges with a young German woman. Several people commented on it – it soured the atmosphere of the gathering; eventually, a friend of the deceased had to separate the two of you.’
I remembered the funeral vividly. It had happened over six months ago, the father of a friend dying after a long illness. I had taken the early train and arrived at the funeral service flustered and regretting the Death’s Head T-shirt I had pulled on so hurriedly that morning. And later that evening, sure enough, I seemed to have some dim recollection of a heated argument with someone whose constant refrain of ‘People like you make me laugh’ had made me especially angry. I remembered it being late at night and that I had stood with my back braced against the bar for fear I might fall over while the thread of what passed for my argument unravelled hopelessly … But, of course, it may have been somewhere else, some other gathering entirely.
‘Furthermore,’ the young man was saying, ‘while keeping a close eye on their development you have prudently withheld judgment on recent events in Venezuela. This caution is to your credit.’
Till now the naked, irrefutable fact of their presence in my flat had blinded me to the obvious question of who these men were and who had sent them. Now it seemed certain to me that they had come from the New World and were probably two field agents from one of those security agencies that had performed so abysmally in recent years. They looked like security agents and they behaved as I imagined security agents should behave. And yet it seemed incredible to me that there were men in that distant jurisdiction, important men working in remote areas of government who had evidently taken an interest in me and my life and had despatched these two to sound me out. It seemed not only incredible but also hopelessly trivial, evidence that someone somewhere had been sidetracked. Nevertheless, there were those suits and those haircuts and those mechanically arch enunciations . . . I made an effort to concentrate harder.
‘There are certain things we don’t know,’ the older man admitted, ‘certain limits to our knowledge.’
‘Gaps,’ the younger man clarified.
‘We want to commission a report,’ the older one elaborated. ‘There are clear gaps in our knowledge of certain things and as such they present a very real security risk. The man who would fill these gaps with accurate accounts and reasonable guesstimates would have the entire world beholden to him.’
‘What sort of report?’
‘A reconnaissance report. You would be fully briefed and equipped and pointed at the target; certain back channels would then be open to you. Our specific interest is in scale drawings, schematics, architects’ blueprints if at all possible. You would be asked to make note of the outlying topography and whatever early-warning systems are in place. Certain evaluations would also be helpful – estimates of manpower, ordnance and readiness for conflict …’
He continued on in this vein for some time and as he did so an overwhelming sense of fatigue took hold of me, a dry falling sensation as if some ashen sediment were settling down through my limbs and torso.
Had he not eventually mentioned something about being put on a generous retainer he would have lost my attention completely. Now he assured me he had access to limitless funds but stressed that it was in everyone’s interest that my presence be buried in the deep end of some discretionary budget – that way I would be shielded from all oversight and accountability. Furthermore, everything about me would be deniable, all my actions and whereabouts, my very existence. In the unlikely event of my capture they would deny all knowledge of me and I would leave no trace whatsoever. Looking at them, I did not doubt from their blank faces that these men could arrange all this.
‘It sounds dangerous.’
‘You can take our word that for someone like you it presents no danger at all.’
Why I should take their word or anything else they had to offer was something I never thought to question.
‘This target, what sort of a thing is it? Is it a place or a thing?’
‘It is both a place and a thing.’
‘It’s a compound or an installation of some sort?’
They shook their heads in unison and said that they could not be more specific at this time; all information from here on would be available on a need-to-know basis. I understood. They were right. I did not need to know: certainly not right now, and maybe not ever.
Now that I had so much to think about, I was keen they should leave and, as if sensing my patience was at an end, they began gathering up their papers; the older of the two handed me a card on which there was a telephone number. The atmosphere in the room now was perfectly amiable, as if some difficult piece of business had been settled to the benefit of everyone.
As they made ready to go, there ensued what may have been the oddest moments of the entire episode. In this relaxed mood, we found ourselves engaged in pleasant banter, which skipped through several topics – the weather, recent political events and last of all, and by way of winding things up, the football championship. All three of us were agreed that, so early in the year, it was difficult to call the championship – as things stood there were at least six teams in with a chance. I advanced a case for my own county and was listened to attentively – we had done well in the league and some promising newcomers had strengthened what was already a gifted panel; all in all I was hopeful and I thought my voice and argument sounded authoritative in the room.
My speech, however, had a curious effect on the younger man; in one moment he seemed to lapse from himself completely into a twitchy and fretful version of the smooth professional who had till now so easily commanded his role and space in the room. Bracing both hands on the back of the chair, he lowered his eyes and shook his head dubiously. While he conceded we had motored along well enough in the league – that was his phrase, motored along – and we were definitely as strong as any through the middle of the field, he doubted our ability to move up into a championship gear; he couldn’t see it happening. He dwelt critically on the fact that the first instinct of our playmaker was to take a step backward while sizing up the available options, and only then lay on thirty-yard cross-field passes onto the forward’s chest. This was well and good, the young man conceded, on heavy winter pitches, but would it translate to the quicker surfaces of summer? He wondered if the ball wouldn’t go in too slow to the forwards – a better option, he opined avidly, would be to drive the ball quickly into the open space behind the defence so that when the forward ran onto it he would be facing the goal. Furthermore, he did not think converted basketball players made good midfielders – it spoils for the other game, he said. However, he conceded, all things considered it might indeed be our year and if it was, it wouldn’t be before time, and there wouldn’t be a man or woman in the country who would begrudge us because …
He stopped as suddenly as he’d begun and seemed altogether sheepish, as if realizing this speech had been the most embarrassing sort of incontinence. Such was his sudden gloom that I thought he must surely have some investment in his argument above the merely theoretical. I saw that there was a muscular girth to him and that the span of his two hands covered the back of the chair completely; it was easy to imagine him being secure under a high ball and for more than one moment I was lost in speculation that he might be the answer to an ongoing weakness in our right corner … The effect of this outburst on his older partner was of a subtler, more drastic sort. Something like a grimace of despair crossed his face, an expression so rapidly erased I could only think that this was not the first time it had happened; evidently, the young man’s speech had disclosed something, which, while hardly fatal to their purpose, was definitely not to their credit.
Once again the conviction that I beheld a single, unified being came to me, but the possibility of ever seeing one without the other now presented itself in the same degree of improbability as a square circle or a single-sided coin.
Their grace and assurance was completely gone. The young man’s speech hung in the room as a gross error. It had opened a mood of embarrassment that turned quickly to something bleaker, less forgivable. If our meeting had drawn us together into some delicate, nuanced complicity, a virtuoso construct in which each had ably played his part, now, because of the young man’s outburst, it all lay in ruins. Visibly anguished, the older man made haste to draw his younger colleague through the door; he followed awkwardly behind, knocking his briefcase against the chair and pulling the door too heavily behind him.
Alone in the room, I was surprised by the sour feeling of disappointment that took hold of me. It came as a real shock to realize that in spite of everything I had enjoyed my two visitors, most especially the arcane expertise they had brought with them. There was no denying that their silken performance had spoken to my vanity; whoever had sent them had seen fit to deploy two men who, for so long, had appeared to be at the top of their game. But the young man’s callowness had ruined that and this angered me. Moreover, it cast considerable doubt on my belief that they had come all the way from the New World; it seemed unlikely that the young man’s acute analysis, his fluent handling of a cultural idiom, had its origins anywhere other than some place close to home. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for him. Outside, out of earshot, I imagined he would be severely rebuked by his older colleague and possibly gain some sort of written reprimand; it seemed likely that whoever these people were they would surely do these things by the book.
When they had left, I sat looking at the card I held in my hand – a plain white thing, which carried nothing save a ten-digit mobile phone number. Would I ever call it? I had no immediate intention of doing so. After a while I went into the kitchen and spent several vexed minutes vainly trying to twist the tap tight enough to make it stop dripping. I crossed back into the sitting room and lay down on the sofa. After what seemed like only a short time I woke up and, after consulting my mobile phone, found I had in fact slept for five hours and that my back had twisted itself into a new and more exquisite variant of the pain I had suffered since getting out of bed.
I thought back over the morning. Of all the stored impressions I had of it, one detail in particular presented itself with vivid insistence – this alleged argument I was supposed to have had with the German woman. Nothing about it seemed improbable – if anything, it seemed all too like me; the drink, the late night, the heated debate, the tendency towards righteous homily – I have a long history of this kind of thing. And yet, for the life of me, I could not put a face to her. Who was she, what exactly had I said to her? I was anxious to get this straightened out because I had some notion that in doing so the wider events of the morning would come into clearer focus.
So I reached for the phone and called this friend of mine. Two, three times I called but his phone kept ringing out; I would have left a message but his voice mail was off. I’d call again later on. I sat for a long time on the sofa listening to the tap dripping in the kitchen and dismally resigned myself to the fact that it would have to stay that way for the time being because, having no tools or washers, there was nothing I could do about it.
And as the minutes passed, I gave myself over completely to a blunt feeling of disgust at having wasted what promised in its first hours to be a perfectly good day.