فصل 09

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فصل 09

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A walk by the river

‘We’re sorry to hear about your wife,’ the nice policeman in the front said, as the police car crawled onto the M4 motorway for the journey into London. ‘It must have been a shock.’

‘Or perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise,’ said the one with short hair who was sitting next to me in the back. ‘Perhaps you were expecting it. If you play with dangerous substances, someone always gets hurt in the end.’

‘Look,’ I said, feeling totally exhausted, with my wrists handcuffed, a dressing still stuck to the side of my head. ‘Since we last met I’ve had a really terrible time, OK? I don’t know anything about how my wife got to be like she was…’

‘What, dead you mean?’ the man sitting next to me said nastily.

‘Sergeant, please,’ said the man in the front, ‘that was not very nice.’

‘Sorry, guy,’ he said, sounding remarkably un-sorry.

‘Yes,’ I said evenly. I didn’t even have enough energy to protest against this unfeeling cruelty. ‘I have no idea how she ended up dead. I know that she was poisoned with some chemical agent, but I don’t know what or how. It was nothing to do with me. My God,’ I said to them, my voice rising slightly as I realised that I had nothing left to lose. ‘Don’t you think I would have stopped it happening if I could have done, if I’d known anything about it?’

‘Well, as to that Mr Armstrong,’ my companion sneered, ‘how can we be sure? I mean you sound convincing, but then you would, wouldn’t you, whether you knew about this or not? How do we know you’re telling us the truth?’

‘You know what,’ I said, realising suddenly that I meant it, ‘I couldn’t care less if you believe me or not. There’s nothing you can do to me that’s worse than what’s happened over the last two weeks. So if you want to imprison me, question me, beat me up, make up evidence against me, any of the things I’ve heard that policemen do, well go on! Go ahead. I am in your hands and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.’

They stopped talking after that and I suppose I must have slept because the next thing I knew we had stopped at the back of a police station in central London.

‘Wake up, Mr Armstrong,’ said the nicer of the two, ‘wake up.’ I opened my eyes. They felt as if they were attached to lead weights. I wanted to go back to sleep.

‘Come on, Derek,’ my short-haired tormentor said, surprising me with his use of my first name. ‘Time to get out and answer a few questions, don’t you think?’

I climbed out of the car and they led me through a back door, down a long corridor, into a room where an older policeman sat behind a desk with a large book.

‘Turn out your pockets please, sir,’ he said.

‘What?’ I asked sleepily. ‘What for?’

‘Oh, come on,’ said my companion. ‘You must have seen films about the police, surely. We’re bringing you in for questioning, aren’t we? So this is the bit where we take all your possessions, anything you might have on your person which you could use to harm yourself, and the custody sergeant here, he writes it all in his big book. That way you can’t come back and say we stole your wallet or anything like that. Got it?’

I got it. They took my wallet, my passport, my watch, the belt from my trousers, my credit card, an old comb, a packet of peanuts I’d pocketed from the plane, a photograph of Malgosia, a little notebook I carried around with me with notes of things I had to do, my electronic organiser and a cassette tape of Mozart’s ‘Symphonia Concertante’ for violin and viola played by two friends of mine which I’d forgotten I had with me when I left England. Then they took me to a cell, pushed me in and shut the door.

It smelt pretty bad in there but I was pleased the room was empty. I sat on the hard, concrete bench facing the door and wondered how long I was going to stay. I wondered if they could tell me why my wife had died. I wondered who I could call to get me out of the situation I was in and then I wondered why I should care.

Once or twice over the next four hours the little metal window in the door would open and I’d see a policeman looking in at me. One of them even asked, ‘You all right, mate? Can I get you a cup of tea from the machine?’ and I was so amazed at this gesture of normality that I agreed. When it came the liquid was hot and sweet, and after the dryness of the aeroplane cabin, and the dryness of my soul, it was curiously refreshing.

Finally, just as I was drifting off to sleep again, the door opened and my nice policeman came in.

‘How are you, Mr Armstrong?’ he said. ‘I see they’ve been looking after you.’ I smiled weakly at him. The situation was so absurd and his words were so inappropriate for the mess I was in, that I couldn’t help it.

‘Well,’ said the policeman, ‘I’m glad to see that you’re in a better mood. It’ll make my job much easier. Would you like to come with me?’

I walked out of the cell. The short-haired policeman was standing in the corridor. The two of them walked me past the custody sergeant’s desk, up a flight of stairs and into an airless little room with a table, five chairs, a fluorescent light above us and a tape recorder. We sat down, me on one side of the table, the two policemen on the other.

The short-haired policeman switched on the tape recorder and said who we were and what the time was. Then he looked at me.

‘You are allowed to make one phone call, you know,’ he said. ‘Do you want to make a phone call?’ I was going to say no, but then I suddenly thought of someone I would like to come and help me.

‘Yes, please,’ I said, so we all got up again, marched out of the room and into the corridor to where a payphone was fastened to the wall. I stopped.

‘Well?’ said the nicer of the two. ‘Go on. Make your call.’

‘That’s a bit of a problem,’ I told him. ‘I had to give that sergeant all my money, didn’t I? Can you lend me 20p?’

They both complained a bit at that, but eventually the younger policeman put his hand into his pocket and gave me the coin. I dialled a number and for what seemed like an age nobody answered. But they did in the end and in the background I could hear a recording of a Beethoven quartet.

‘Hello,’ said the voice, ‘hello, can I help you?’

‘Rachel,’ I said, the relief in my voice making me sound almost happy. ‘Rachel, I’m back in London and I need your help.’

Rachel sent her mother. I had forgotten that her parents were both lawyers. I had met Rachel’s mother once or twice before when she had come to listen to the quartet. I remembered her as being warm and pleasant, an older version of her daughter but somehow stronger and more sure of herself. She had always been very nice to me.

In the cell with the police she wasn’t particularly warm or pleasant at all, but she was strong and assertive. My nice and nasty questioners found her almost impossible to handle. Every time they asked me a question that she didn’t like, she would forbid me to answer, or she would lecture the two policemen on the rules for police interrogations, rules which she knew in a great deal more detail than them. And she did it with such a severe face, such a hard determination, that my two tormentors, who had no doubt come across many lawyers before, but who had obviously not met anyone like Rachel’s mother, were finally reduced to almost complete silence and, by the time we had finished, had ended up telling us far more than they had intended.

The interview started when the nice policeman asked me what I knew about Seratraxel.

‘Seratraxel?’ I repeated. ‘What’s that?’

‘A chemical agent,’ the short-haired one said, ‘a kind of nerve gas, I suppose you’d call it. Odourless. No smell. Takes about four or five days…’

‘That’s enough,’ the older policeman said. ‘Well, Mr Armstrong?’

‘I don’t know anything about Sera - whatever-it-is,’ I replied.

‘Come on,’ the short-haired one continued, ‘you don’t expect us to believe that, do you?’

‘My client has said that he doesn’t know what it is,’ Rachel’s mother said, ‘so you will have to take his word for it. You are not allowed to go on asking a witness the same question again and again.’ That was the way she talked.

They tried a few more times, though, asking all sorts of clever questions. Each time Rachel’s mother stepped in to protect me, though since I knew very little anyway, they would never have got much out of me.

Next they started asking me about Scotland. Had I ever been to Dundonnell?

‘Dundonnell?’ I answered. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’

‘Well, it appears that your wife knew where it was,’ the older man said.

‘She might have, but I don’t. Where is it?’ I asked them.

‘Right up in the north of Scotland on the shores of Little Loch Broom, just south of Ullapool,’ the nicer policeman said. ‘It’s a lovely place, a lonely place. I expect your wife told you about it, about the hotel there, the one she stayed at more than once. The only one there is in Dundonnell. She probably told you about the research station just up the mountain there. She did tell you all about that, didn’t she?’

‘No. No, I’ve never heard any of this before,’ I told him truthfully. But the pieces were suddenly all beginning to fit.

‘Look, Derek,’ the short-haired policeman said nastily, ‘all this “I don’t know” doesn’t impress me you know. I wasn’t born yesterday. I suggest that you knew your wife went up to Dundonnell to meet a man called Tibor Arkadi, a man we can’t get at because he’s in Brazil where you’ve just been. I suggest that you knew that around the time your wife and her “companion” were up there the last time, some Seratraxel was stolen from the government chemical weapons research station, and what’s more that you know where that chemical agent is now. Because we’ve searched your house from top to bottom, you see, but we can’t find it. And let me warn you, Derek Armstrong, if you don’t tell us where it is pretty damn soon, we’re going to shut you away for a very, very long time. So what’s it going to be? The truth? Or the rest of your life in jail?’

‘Chemical agents?’ Rachel’s mother said unexpectedly. At a government research station? I thought this country had signed a convention to ban chemical weapons research.’

‘Fool,’ the older policeman snapped at his colleague. ‘You talk a little bit too much.’

‘It’s not what you think,’ he said to us. ‘Just some research the armed forces are doing to find out what our enemies are up to. That’s all. If you say anything about it no-one will believe you. Anyway, we’d lock you up straight away. So you won’t want to talk about it, will you?’

They asked me more questions, and I told them what I knew (when Rachel’s mother would let me). But it wasn’t much. And in return they told me that they had been sent reports of a man answering Tibor Arkadi’s description meeting a worker from the secret research station.

‘The worker died in a car accident,’ the older policeman said, ‘but we think he took the Seratraxel and gave it to Mr Arkadi.’

‘A most convenient accident,’ the short-haired one said. But by then I’d heard enough, and once Rachel’s mother had stopped the policemen asking any more questions we left the police station.

‘Where to now?’ she asked, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do next. I didn’t have any idea about anything really. So when she said that Rachel had offered to put me up at her house if I didn’t want to go back to my own place I agreed with the suggestion because I couldn’t think of any reason not to.

‘Come on,’ Rachel said to me, ‘it’s a beautiful day. I think you need some fresh air.’

I looked at her. She was worried about me, I could tell. I suppose that wasn’t very surprising, really. I had been staying in her house for over two weeks, and in that time, I admit it, I was terrible company. I slept a lot. I went for walks by the river (and made Rachel very nervous, she told me later, because she was afraid that I would throw myself off a bridge or something). I hardly said a word. And in all that time Rachel, my friend, my companion, never complained.

My bandage was off, and I had stopped taking the tranquillisers her doctor had given to me. Rachel had been to my house to get my viola and bring me my post (which I hadn’t been interested enough to look at yet) and a couple of changes of clothes. Now she had decided that I needed organising, so she’d rung Matt and Carl, asked them round, and with her sister (who’s an excellent pianist) we had just played through the quintet by Elgar. And while we were playing I had only thought of Malgosia and policemen and men with guns firing up at me about three or four times instead of every minute as I had been doing recently.

That’s the thing about music, of course: it demands all your attention, all your concentration. Once we were in the middle of the first movement, I had my first moment of real peace since Malgosia had left - if peace is surrendering yourself to the demands of music-making as I was doing. Admittedly I wasn’t playing my best, but I got through it, and though Matt and Carl looked vaguely disapproving, Rachel smiled over at me after each movement, a smile of real encouragement, real hope.

We stood up, leaving our instruments on the chairs. Matt invited Rachel’s sister for an early evening drink and Carl said he had to phone his parents. Rachel took me by the arm and walked to the door.

Outside it was warmer than I had expected. The sky was a bright autumn blue and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We turned right and walked down to the path that runs alongside the River Thames. Other people were out too; an elderly couple walking their dog, a sweaty jogger pounding past us with the ticka - ticka - ticka of her walkman echoing tunelessly as she brushed my shoulder on her energetic journey.

‘Look,’ said Rachel as we were passing a pub that seemed vaguely familiar. ‘Remember that place?’ She was smiling broadly, the evening light glittering in her pretty eyes. I remembered the place all right from that night back when we were both students, and for a second, even after all these years, I felt embarrassed.

‘Disaster Inn!’ she said, and laughed and there was something so innocent about it that I laughed back at her. I felt incredibly grateful that she could joke about it now. It was a subject we had not mentioned for a long time.

‘Dee!’ she cried. ‘You laughed. You actually laughed. I can’t believe it. That must be the first time for days.’

‘Yes, well, there hasn’t been much to laugh about.’ I said. ‘But look, I’m sorry, really sorry I’ve been so terrible. You’ve been so kind. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank you.’

‘Poor Dee,’ she said, holding my arm tighter, ‘what are we going to do with you?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied, watching two boats with eight rowers each racing under Putney bridge, the cries of the coxes in the back of each boat ringing across the water like ghosts. ‘It’s just that I can’t stop it, you see. I can’t get that picture out of my head, the man in his white protection suit carrying Malgosia to that plane, and the hospital, and that bastard Tibor and…’

‘Derek,’ Rachel said, using my full name for once, turning me round and making me face her, ‘Derek, I know you must be hurting, we all know that, and I’m not trying to say it’s not important or anything, please believe me, but now it’s time to stop it. It’s over. The past has passed. It’s the future we should be thinking of. It’s the future that matters to you. To me.’

And before I could stop her she had kissed me, and suddenly, as if I had always known this, I felt an overpowering sense of love for her and a great tide of relief washing over me. I don’t know how you sense these things, but then and there, as the evening light cast its gentle shadows over the river’s edge, I knew with absolute certainty that I could trust this woman, that I had always been able to trust this woman with my life.

‘Rachel,’ I whispered, ‘help me.’

‘You silly fool,’ she said, tears in her pretty eyes. ‘Of course I’ll help you. I’ve always helped you. Help you do what?’

I told her and she started to protest, but she must have seen my determination so in the end she stopped talking and we held each other as the tide came in and the water rippled over the mud. Then we turned and walked back to the house. I kept looking at her as if she was someone I had never met before, someone I had never really seen before. For the first time since the day when I had come home to find my wife gone, I felt as if something positive might happen. But there was danger too. Back in Rio where I had suddenly realised that I had to return.

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