- Vol. 05
- Chapter 10
He examined me over his pint glass, which he'd raised to cover the lower half of his face, cider tipped and still against the wall of his lips, while he tried to think. Surely, he’d had better training than this? People working at Vauxhall Cross should surely have to attend 'A Basic Introduction on How to Avoid Being Spectacularly Bad at Lying'? I raised an eyebrow and, caught, he lowered the cider and laughed, nervous.
‘Don’t think you understand what I’m saying, Rupert,’ he said, loosening his tie. ‘It’s not that I can’t tell you, it’s that I CAN'T tell you. Do you see?’
I did not see. I ate a pistachio to indicate as much.
‘Can’t tell you,’ he repeated, leaning into the stressed word this time, knuckles white on the sticky table. ‘Literally, unequivocally cannot. Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, or at least I don’t think I want to, do I?’
I swallowed. ‘You seem very stressed. Are you feeling alright?’
‘Ah! There he is! There he is. First thing you say…Well, thank you for being concerned, but I’m quite alright. Really.’ He raised his pint, then put it back down again. ‘Now, stop it, Rupert. Stop watching me like that.’
I smiled and blinked.
‘Look, I…’ He glanced around at the other patrons in the pub. It was his lunch hour, but he’s come so far on the tube that we only had five minutes together in the end. He’d had no time to order food and he drank quickly, which wasn’t helping matters. ‘You don’t know what it’s like. There are so many things spiralling around in that place, like insects fluttering in your face, and you can’t stick a pin in them, oh no.’
‘I haven’t asked you to stick a pin in anything.’
‘No, you haven’t asked…’ he realised. ‘You haven’t, have you?’
‘But if you were to…’
‘Now, Rupert. I must warn you to stop right there.’
‘Stop where, dear brother?’ I finished my own pint.
‘You’re leading me to a breakdown, you know that? Years you’ve been doing this to me. It’s just a game, is it?’
‘Teasing is the word, I think.’
‘Bullying. Harassing. Tormenting.’
‘Perhaps you should switch careers?’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, as though he really meant it this time. ‘But no.’ Defeated. ‘I’m so far into the labyrinth, I’m not sure there is a way out at all. I’m all fluttering, spiralling, insectoid secrets.’ He sank down to put his chin on the table. ‘But you see, no one gave me a string or a piece of chalk, and now I’m lost. Irrevocably lost, Rupert.’
Ah, so that was their recruitment process: employ the muddle-minded to slurry everything safely together. I looked at him fondly between the condiments.
‘Sounds to me,’ I said. ‘Like the country’s secrets are in very safe hands.’
He smiled weakly.