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The Pleiades

There must have been four or five cats in the hallway when she opened the door. Would that be a problem? she had asked on the telephone earlier. I am fond of cats, she said. I hope if you were to take the rooms it would not inconvenience you. No, I replied, its fine. She was a small woman, just over five feet tall. Her white hair was tied back behind her head. There was something about the clothes she wore. Her appearance was more suited to a younger generation: the brightly dyed blouse, the flowing dress and the sandals. Her movement or, was it the tone, the timbre of her voice, suggested something older, something a little deeper than the populist movements of the sixties: the birth of the age of television. Her manner was polite, even quite formal. I found this difficult to match with her appearance. It was also disarming. She was insistent that even though she was in effect my landlady, she would be happy if I could see her less in that light. If I could see her more as someone with whom I was to share some areas of communal space. Briefly, I explained what I was doing. I only needed the rooms for a couple of months as I was working on a new thriller. It was better to avoid going into details. Still she raised her eyebrows, looked interested, and asked me what it was about. As tactfully as I could, I said I still was not sure. At that moment I had a number of ideas in mind but was undecided exactly with which to proceed. It was a work in formation rather than progress, I added. Then, rather abruptly she told me how much rent I should pay. I asked when I could move in. Any time at the weekend will be convenient she replied. She did spend much time at the premises, she explained, but her daughter, who worked for a nearby solicitor often stayed and would be able to answer any questions I had. As she closed the door behind me, there was something about the darkness in the entrance to the building, something about its silence that left me unsettled. It left me feeling that in some way I was about to go over ground I had been over before. I took the Underground to my hotel. It was raining. There was a stretch where the train rode above ground and the spring shower fell lightly against the window. I thought about where I should take my new novel. I was still blaming my publisher, still telling myself she was putting me under pressure. I felt frustrated. Each time I began to flush out a plot I would find myself getting only so far before it would seem I was again getting nowhere.

I set the jar of peanut butter and the pack of biscuits down on the table and looked around the room. The bland dcor, the cheap wallpaper, the dull mirror above the hand basin were less than inspiring. Around the door the carpet was worn almost down to its threads. For a moment I felt the pressure of all the people who must have passed through, the peculiar saturation, yet vacancy of a hotel room. Then I had an idea. Pulling my small typewriter out of its case, I took a deep breath, and started working. I must have spent a couple of hours at least, starting sentences, stopping sentences, until, I realised I was still typing and the words were still flowing. Suddenly, I had a story in skeleton form. Or, at least I had a basic framework that experience told me held possibility. It was related to a book I had read about intelligence gathering. My main protagonist was an operative, an agent briefed to investigate a possible terrorist cell. Something suggested it should be about smuggling arms or bomb making material. Initially I thought of a third-world connection, but put that aside. I decided instead on something more European, something closer to home. And how should I introduce my man to his mission? He must be rootless. He must set out from some nondescript boarding house in London. A lone figure, a man who would only have a brief outline of the territory he was going in to. A man for whom a fixed identity was something unknown, something that had long ago been given up for a world of duplicity and disguise. Should he be cool and collected? Or should he be tough, someone trained to survive in difficult circumstances? Perhaps he should appear normal, deceptively so: in fact almost a little grey. He would be a man with the tired expression of an empty middle age. His background? Maybe it was better to give only simple details, details so obvious they could be applied without difficulty to almost anybody. This carefully constructed normality was in itself the ultimate cover. I speculated that there could be a shadow mystery. While this man would lead the reader through the maze of cover and counter-cover, lead the reader into the lives of various persons, criminal or otherwise, in the end his drive to unmask others would be what masked him. And in completing his brief, in unmasking the characters of the plot, he was in a way unmasking the story, pulling together its various elements. Who was this man? Where did he come from? Did he have a past? Did he have family and friends? What was it that made him tick? To whom did he answer? Moving did not take as long as I expected. I managed to organise everything in a morning. Just before I was about to leave my room there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find the hotel manager standing there. Theres someone on the telephone for you, he said. He was a peculiar man, a Yugoslav. His wife was a taciturn woman from Cardiff. Between them, they ran the hotel. His face was melancholy. A face that had it not been tinged with real suffering would have looked like one of 2

those ridiculous paintings one sees hanging in tasteless living rooms. Pictures of puppy dogs with wrinkled jowls, with droopy ears, with sad, sentimental eyes. I followed him down to the phone was and thanked him. Then I lifted the receiver. I was surprised to hear a familiar voice. It had been over a year since I had spoken to Sorcha. In fact, my last memory of her was on the platform of the Bahnhof in Kln. She asked how I was. I told her I was fine. I wondered from where she was calling. Into my mind came the cold evening nearly fourteen months previous when I said goodbye to her. Then I needed to run to catch the train. That night as I felt the shunt of the carriages pulling out from the platform, I looked back. There was a sort of confused smile on her face as she waved. In fourteen months I had not forgotten that look. Whenever I thought of it I felt it to suggest a sudden feeling of regret. Maybe it was a mistake for me to be leaving. Sorcha was talkative. She told me she would be in London for some time. We should meet, she suggested. Even as I agreed, I felt a familiar sense of frustration. Would she do what she often did? Enthusiastically agree and suggest she call back in a day or two to arrange a time. Then forget or seem to forget and wait to see if I would call her. Once I asked her why she did this. With the touch of drama, the flash in her eyes to which I was so partial to, she apologised and said something to the effect that she had mislaid my telephone number and was sorry; she hoped I wasnt too offended. Now she immediately suggested a place. Confused, I stammered a time and date. I put the receiver down and found myself thinking about Kln.

There is something about certain moments when you know that the one seemingly simple act is really of greater significance than it appears. Sometime in the future that moment will be looked back on and its importance understood. The evening in the Bahnhof was one of those moments. I thought of the curious apartment in which we lived. I remembered the unusual way it was part of a complex of shops and lock-ups. Into my mind drifted the faded atmosphere, the darkness, the way the sun reached into the living room during the early morning, and then only for a couple of hours at most. There were details that it seemed had not escaped me. A 3

wardrobe, much too big for any of the rooms, stuffed to overfull with Sorchas clothes. The tiny cooker in the kitchen, and the awkward way the window next to it was set almost at a forty-five degree angle to a blank wall. There was the bedroom that opened onto a narrow balcony and looked out over pine trees and a couple of winding pathways. I remembered the smell of liquorice and vanilla: the bottle of Scotch that stood against the wall behind a pile of books. I wondered if these things had stayed with Sorcha as they had stayed with me. Sorcha approached life with abandon. Whereas I equivocated, always tried to place everything with a view to its consequences, she simply acted. Constantly, she appeared to be on the move, always going from one appointment to the other. How she maintained her energy, I do not know. Yet somehow she did. There were times when I felt left behind. I felt myself to be clumsy and lacking an inner grace. Perhaps secretly I would love to have acted with the nonchalance and impulse with which she acted. On one occasion she simply walked off: left me standing in the middle of the Briete Strasse at two in the morning. She was irritated because I wanted to return to the apartment and sleep. This push and pull, this sense of a balancing act held us together and drove us apart. When things worked, they worked well, but when we fell, the crash was uncomfortably hard. In the end we did not so much separate as drift apart. We were both incapable of saying what needed to be said. Instead we simply spent less and less time in each others company. There was no scene. We had no need to pretend things were otherwise. She sighed, and in the way she often did, looked around, then brightly, as if afraid to dwell on anything too upsetting, too difficult, asked if I would write. Once I telephoned to inform her I was sending back some cassette tapes I had found among my things. I omitted to tell her I had also found a photograph hidden between the casing and a piece of cardboard, and that, after staring at it for a couple of minutes, I slipped into my wallet. Later I felt guilty. Still I did not repent and relinquish my memento. When I returned to my room, when I saw the last of the tightly packed cases waiting by the door I felt that somehow I had come in a circle. Here I was again moving, again turning a page, and here Sorcha was again coming into my life.

It did not take me long to settle into my rooms. Soon I felt as at home as I could imagine. I got used to the cats, got used to their scratching on the window late at night, to their running around my feet every time I walked 4

through the hallway. My unusual landlady was not there much. Her daughter was home nearly every evening. The daughter was a thin woman in her late twenties. She had tightly groomed hair and a nervous manner. On our first meeting, she simply said, good evening. Another time she enquired as to how I was settling in. I explained her mother had told me to make myself at home. Mother would say that, she replied tartly and walked off. I had already spent a week at work. There was flesh on the bones of my story. Some of the setting, the detail, was filled out. The narrative had been pushed into some sort of shape. I considered introducing a political aspect to the theme but decided to concentrate on the characters. The operation was to be codenamed, `Pleiades, and I was working on the assumption I would be able to incorporate this in some way into the title. One evening I opened the door to find myself looking into the daughters eyes. She murmured a quick, good evening, and turned away. Behind her, stood a tall, dark haired woman. There was a brief silence before I was introduced to her cousin from New Zealand. I put out my hand, and said, `hello. The daughter turned to the cousin, and with a sly look explained, he is mothers new lodger. Ever so mysterious. Working late into the night, coming and going at strange hours. I am positively dying to know what he is up to. I was sure I had told her mother what I was doing. I was writing a new book. Suddenly I felt awkward but seeing the cousin look at me sympathetically, said, there is nothing strange. I am writing a new novel, a new thriller. Sometimes I start working late and then keep on until the early hours of the morning. The daughter gave a light laugh, pulled over the flap on her shoulder bag and asked if I would excuse them, as they needed to go. Of course, I replied. I looked at the typewriter; at the page half covered in words, and wondered to myself what else I could have possibly been up to. I smiled as I thought how improbable it was that my hammering away at the keys of the typewriter was not heard through the flat. It was simple. I was a person engaged in writing a book, in the making of fiction. My stories were only stories. There was nothing else to it. Perhaps some people found that strange. Perhaps the idea that someone lived from something as vague as words was more upsetting than the idea that someone could be involved in something sinister. The logic of this escaped me. We all use words. Their ability to shape our lives, to determine or expand boundaries, is, in a manner, what defines us. Words are everywhere around us. They are involved in every aspect of our living. In fact their power is often surprising, if not unnerving.

For example I find it disturbing that words can be set in a context that renders their meaning ambiguous. They are often presented in a way that forms an impression subtly at odds with truth. In regions of the world where there is conflict words are often the prelude to violence and loss of life. Words are themselves often the weapon of choice in an initial encounter. They are the source or energy that eventually delivers a bullet, raises a baton, places a bomb, fires a tear gas grenade. And public representatives in these conflicts are adept at using words to instigate strife while using the same words to be absolved of responsibility. The method of twisting words to establish a degree of innocence that is then related to a degree of acceptable violence repeatedly amazes me. Myself? I like to believe there is no degree of acceptable violence. Yet perhaps I should not pursue that. After all much of fiction revolves around a world in which some degree of violence is acceptable. Occasionally I remind myself that what I write is only fiction. Fiction bears no resemblance to actual life. Fiction starts in the mind of the writer and is created to entertain. Yet all fiction has its roots in reality. Perhaps fiction is a place where reality takes refuge from its consequences? There are times real events bear all the hallmarks of a good story or an intriguing plot. Then I wonder if fiction has a concealed role in a society? Is it a mediator between reality and possibility? Maybe it is a trial-run for different forms of reality. If so I wonder who might consider be considering one of my plots and examining its feasibility. Were I involved in anything really unusual it is unlikely anyone would notice? I would probably be ignored, left in peace to get on with whatever it was I was involved in. More than likely I would have a cover, a disguise so good I would be able to carry on uninterrupted.

It was some days later I met Sorcha. When I made the arrangement I instinctively gave myself a couple of weeks. Something said it was better to let things sit for a while. It was better to get myself settled in my new rooms and started at work. It was a showery Sunday afternoon. I waited, back off the pavement under the archway of South Kensington Underground station until I saw her approaching. It is strange meeting someone not seen for a long time. It is as if the absence has filled with them not being there. Then they are there and they somehow subvert the sense of memory. As if the memory has grown at the expense of the person. As if the memory has replaced the person. Until 6

when confronted with the person, the memory falls apart and reveals all its imagining, all its wishful thinking, its small deceptions. I watched Sorcha walk toward me and remembered some of the things I found so compelling in her: her ebony hair, her bright blue eyes skin and her angular walk. When she reached me, she hesitated briefly and smiled. There was a moment of shyness. Her eyes lit momentarily, her cheeks flushed slightly and she looked down. Once in Kln, sitting on a bench under an old Linden tree, after we had argued I thought I at last understood her sense of the dramatic. Her gestures, even when exaggerated, could never hide something of the vulnerable. And this fracture between how she liked to see herself, between her image of herself and what others could see was one of her attractions. Subtle, intimate moments robbed her of pretense. She leaned forward and kissed me lightly on both cheeks. There was the faint aroma of brandy from her breath. We walked a little way and found a tearoom. It was full of genteel, aging east-Europeans, and its atmosphere was somehow shot through with a peculiar sadness. It was like the stillness of snow on grey morning cities. Sorcha was wearing a bright, green dress. Despite the lightly applied makeup there was a pallor to her skin. She had always appeared healthy, always energetic. Her nature had a sensuality to it that suggested something rich, something waiting to be given form. She had ease, a slowness that was easily missed in her constant activity. We talked over coffee and gateau. I felt that some of the inner grace I always seemed to miss was suddenly mine to command. She flirted lightly. I resisted. We avoided Kln. The sound of cups being placed on saucers, of cutlery rattling, of the coffee machine hissing seemed to mix and carry us along. Rain stopped and pale sun fell through the windows and over the tables and caught cigarette smoke in the air. When we left, I walked her to the Underground and she again kissed me on both cheeks. I began to walk: along the Gloucester Road, to Queens Gate, and into Hyde Park. It began to rain again. In spring I always find that pleasant: lightly falling rain, the rush of green over pavements, the forms of the buildings against the muted colours of the sky. The heavy city air cleared and I stuck my hands in my pockets, looked out from under the old baseball cap I often carried with me. I felt free to follow where my feet took me. I walked and thought of the time we spent in Kln: where some of those events and feelings left me. They felt near and yet far. It was as if I had thought them gone only to find out that they had been simply hiding from me. They were like old photographs of people that because of an item of clothing, a hairstyle, seem old, distant, yet in a gesture, a smile, are timelessness. There is a sense that no time has actually passed, no time has actually gone by; things have always been as they are now and were then. 7

This strange sense, not of a frozen moment, but of a pattern of events destined to repeat itself, to relocate itself many times in my life, was on my mind as I entered the park. I walked under the trees and found a bench along the Serpentine.

In the following weeks I worked hard. I was satisfied with the development of my story. Rarely do I work in a straight line. Rarely do I write strictly to order. Sometimes I work on sections as I feel the need, work on the parts that seem to be there in front of me. Other times I write pieces then put them together like a puzzle, fitting them into place, judging where they should go, letting the storyline develop from their juxtaposition. Already I had finished a section where the undercover operative has tracked the suspects to a small coastal town. He has uncovered many details of the operation. Now he is sure of the nature and quantity of arms and explosives being smuggled. He has established that the terrorists are using a small tourist business to hide their real enterprise. Approximately ten miles from the town in which they operate, is a large port, a port that offers freight and passenger services. After numerous frustrations the smuggling network had been broken into smaller parts. Some of the guns and bomb making components are being smuggled under cover of souvenir import. These are souvenirs that though destined for innocent holidaymakers provide an innocent front for a dirty war. And this enterprise is only a small part of the entire enterprise. The operation has international connections. I at first hesitated over this idea, thinking maybe it pushed belief too far. I was not sure if it was asking too much of the readers sense of irony to accept that silly hats, flags, pictures, postcards, all bought in total innocence, could have this hidden, dark parallel. In a way I wanted to show, that the souvenir buying public was implicated: all being unknowingly. How would my agent fare? Possibly he would be compromised. Unknown to him his cover could be blown. This would add an element of suspense. It would introduce an element of uncertainty in that the reader was aware of his being compromised. I wanted to involve the reader in the events in this way, involve the reader in a world where knowing and not knowing mean everything. In this world of secrecy and deception, there is always a grey area difficult for those outside to interrogate. All participants exploit this lack of definition. Were my agents actions, even if not compromised, in fact darkening the waters? Was his deception, his facelessness a form of violence itself?

A week after our first meeting Sorcha phoned. Though I wrestled with the wisdom of doing so, I agreed to go with her to the theater one evening. It was no surprise I had to call a couple of times to get a definite date and place. Eventually we arranged to meet in a West-end pub. I was feeling relaxed. This time I did not resist when the conversation drifted to the personal. When I asked if she remembered me saying goodbye that evening on the Bahnhof in Kln, remembered me stepping on the train, she looked at me with a puzzled expression and answered to the effect she thought I went to the station alone. I finished my beer and ordered another. She sipped on her brandy. I watched how she held the glass. It reflected its light up into her face. I wanted to say that surely she must have remembered. It had not been just any departure. Yet as only she could, she changed the subject. She remembered she had to make a phone call. Later as we hurriedly left the pub, she informed me we were to meet some friends of hers in front of the theater. She had forgotten to tell me and we were already a little late. It was a small venue, just south of the river. By the time we got there I was irritated. In the Underground she turned to me and unexpectedly said she hoped I would find Nicholas pleasant; she hoped we would like each other. We entered the foyer and I saw her change. I saw the social being, the Sorcha who thrived best in a crowd, come alive. As always I detected something not quite true in this. Not in the sense that it was pretentious, affected, but it was as if she were holding up a mirror that she hoped someone would break. We went and took our seats. The lights were already low and the space dark. My throat felt dry and irritated. I could see that the theatre was very small. It appeared there was only the narrowest of spaces between where the performance took place and where the audience sat. As we took our places and the actors came out my throat began to catch. I started to cough lightly. It was unfortunate, but the more I tried not to cough, the more I felt the need. I tried stifling it, tried swallowing to ease the dryness, but did not succeed. Twice I noticed one of Sorchas friends glaring over at me. Throughout the performance, I sat in a strange mode of suspension, caught between my dry throat and the reproachful looks of others. When the performance was finished, I went and stood on the street. The fresh air was welcome. Sorcha pushed through the crowd to find me. She asked if I would call a taxi. I need to find Nicholas, could you keep it waiting, Ill return in a minute, she said. My eyes followed her as she turned back to the theater. I felt I was a stranger. I wondered why I had agreed to meet her.

I knew they were all planning to go somewhere for a couple of drinks. Nothing had been said about me being unwelcome, but as I hailed the taxi and waited, I decided not to stay. Arriving with Nicholas and friends, she looked vaguely surprised when I declined, when I said I had work to do, that I needed to get home, perhaps some other time. She kissed me lightly on the cheek, stepped into the taxi and as it pulled away I walked in the opposite direction.

Some moments carry a meaning not apparent. Only later as I stood in the entrance to the flat it struck me. I remembered the feeling of going over ground I had already gone over. I turned to look at the sky. There was still sunlight to the west. The blue was streaked with amber. From around a corner, the red shape of a bus appeared. Its lights glowed as it made its way up towards Chelsea. Again I was saying goodbye to Sorcha. Yet it was more like an evasion. I was slipping away from something that would not move any further but could not quite give itself up as finished. Would I see her again? Would there be times in the future when I would replay this moment? Why could we never just stop and say goodbye? In front of me the night stretched. I thought of sitting down in front of my typewriter: the Pleiades. It was a story of evasiveness and search. I thought of Sorcha stepping into the taxi, the back of her head through the window. It seemed to me that with each encounter we removed a layer only to find another layer beneath. We removed a mask, only to have another take its place. This postponing of resolution was in itself a form of relationship. What could not be had, what eluded was what defined the future. The unreachable end was itself a measure of reality. This time it was me who stood still while she moved away. Which one of us had avoided detection? Which one of us had evaded the other? Perhaps she was meant to elude me and yet somehow always accompany me. I would forever find hints and resonance of her in the faces of others. Standing, the key still in my hand, I heard the purr of a cat. I felt it run past my leg, and looked and saw the cousin from New Zealand in front of me. Her was puzzled. She asked if I was coming in or going out?


Copyright (C) Peter Millington. July 1996


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