“I’ve been at the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society, at Eton College,” I said.
This was in response to Amy’s question: “Why do you never come to see me any more?”
The true answer is that it is much further from Stratford to Great Secret Miss than from Clerkenwell so I have got out of the habit, but I thought to put her off by a cunning change of subject. It worked.
“He wrote about me in his Society Newsletter,” she said.
“That’s the man,” I said, “but it wasn’t him, he’s dead, and now the Society celebrates him and his work.”
“You should have taken me, said Amy. I investigate him at the internet. I read some books. The wrong overcoat. Compare Gogol.”
She is immensely thorough.
“It was wonderful,” I said, ”the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society, at Eton College. I met some lovely people, there were some agreeable wines from the Eton College cellars and I came away with a renewed love for the man and the novels.”
“Grey Gowrie was there?”
“He was. He made a very elegant speech, in lovely well-modulated tones. It took one back to the days when we had Ministers of Culture who could read. In fact all the talks were very good except one from Robin Bynoe. You remember him. He thought that all the characters in the novel should have job descriptions and measure their achievements against targets at the end of each chapter. Probably he thought that Messrs. Heinemann should have published the books with feed-back forms.”
“He don’t understand artistes. He has no soul. He still barred Great Secret Miss.”
“That is as it should be,” I said.
“Cantankerous bugger though,” said Amy.
“No, Anthony Powell.”
“Certainly he could on occasion be not unrebarbative,” I said. “I think that his fictional narrator Nick Jenkins would have been more amenable company than he. But now that he’s dead it’s possible to express our love for both without fear of its being rejected.”
“I think: the bandersnatch from Frome,” said Amy.
“Frome-ious bandersnatch,” I said. “ Mm.”
“Pun,” said Amy. “English humour.”
“I see, I see. Though possibly…”
I was at Great Secret Miss for a specific purpose. Alfredo, my double the assassin, is still staying with us. He has been here for nearly a month. It had not become clear why. He intrigues me and I am happy to have him around – there is never any risk of his doing anything clumsy or rude and unlike many of our house guests in the past he has accurately located the dish washer – but there are always claims on our spare bedroom. Normally it is a revolving-door policy and since he has been with us there have been mutterings from those who regard themselves as in the queue.
Finally he confided in me.
“Life,” he said, “is not always easy for a retired assassin. People say, relax. Try relaxing when you are accustomed to listening for the slightest sound, watching for the slightest movement in your peripheral vision. I am not stupid,” he said, “and I know that I have tied up all the loose ends as much as that can possibly be done; in practice I am not in danger. But I thought that I could leave it all behind and I find that that is impossible. I have tried la dolce vita. I have capered at parties, clutching my private parts. I have worn plastic hats and amusing glasses. I have clasped women to my bosom and encouraged passers-by to photograph us together on my iPhone, entrusted to them temporarily for that purpose. I have drunk excessively, particularly the agreeable wines of the Amarone region. I have tried recreational drugs. I am new to them, as you will understand: they are not compatible by and large with the assassin’s deadly trade.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I have thought that what I need is opium, the drug of forgetfulness. I found an opium den in Limehouse. It was run by a Mr Lee. It wasn’t a success. First, I was the only man there in an open-necked shirt. Then no one, neither the customers, many of whom seemed to be from the higher reaches of the judiciary, nor the Chinese girls serving green tea, addressed any conversation to me apart from the curtest of exchanges. It wasn’t a success. One cannot seek oblivion while socially uneasy. I made my excuses and left.”
Of course I recommended Amy, Great Secret Miss and the recondite consolations of kefir. Even as Amy and I were now conversing, Alfredo was in one of the mysterious back rooms having his titanic and inconsolable ego benignly dismantled by one of Amy’s girls and the elixir of forgetfulness.
As it happens (or ‘ironically’ as we are encouraged to say these days) I have been trying to cut down on my own intake of kefir. Amy allows me my own supply – the gold-standard stuff from Montenegro – so that I am not reduced to that available in the Eastern-European food shops with which Stratford is blessed. But I have taken too much recently. The extravagant dreams muscled in on my waking hours. I awoke feeling as if my mouth has been scoured dry.
So I have given it up for a week or so. Of course that has its effect too. The nights pass in silence and the daytime is distinguished by a banality of almost surrealistic intensity.
I keep this to myself. My colleagues would find it upsettingly alien and Alfredo has his own problems.
At that moment he emerged, wild-eyed and supported by that one of Amy’s girls who had ministered to him. He fixed me with a feverish eye.
“I suspect that something important has happened,” he said.