C C Canning
There are two monsoons that affect Vietnam: the North East monsoon from mid- October to March and the South West Monsoon from April to mid-October. The latter sweeps in from the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand where it loads up with warm, humid air that it converts to rain before taking delight in dumping it in large quantities across the whole country. In Hanoi in June expect 400mm or more to fall in the month and temperatures in the mid-thirties centigrade. For the 80 million or so Vietnamese this is no impediment to rushing about as always in pursuit of the ingenuous solutions they all find for putting food on the table but for people who are not used to it the heat and humidity can be overwhelming.
Inside the British Embassy building in Hanoi the heat and humidity was kept at bay by solid masonry walls, double glazing and Japanese heat pumps. Even so, it took a season or so for the Foreign Office staff to adjust to the debilitating effects of the outdoors and the temperature differential provided by the air conditioning was a mixed blessing for them, being only a temporary relief that confused the body’s thermostat. For this reason, Donald Proctor, who occupied a third floor office in the building overlooking Hai Ba Trung liked to have his air conditioning set in the high twenties and he dressed accordingly in a white short sleeved shirt worn outside his trousers. He was a seasoned ex-pat. His guest, Anton Faraday, however, had only been in the country for a few weeks and was still having trouble with the heat. Though he, too, dressed appropriately for it, his body thermostat had not yet adjusted. His preference would have been that the temperature on the air conditioning unit was turned way down.
Temperature aside, the atmosphere in the office was very mild, all things considered. There was an unmistakeable frisson in the air but, at least for the moment, it was well contained. The two men were quietly circling each other, conversationally searching each other out.
‘If we are to believe what they tell us,’ Procter said, his tone rather implying that he did not believe it himself, ‘life, as we know it, started with a single cell bacterium lying in water; just a primitive bug, going nowhere, doing nothing. Then the bug farted. That's how it all began, under water. Though I may have expressed that rather more crudely than the origin of life proponents would like.’
This sounded to Faraday like an attempt to establish an intellectual sidebar to their meeting, a place to which Procter would be able to escape in order to take refuge in metaphor and obfuscation should plain speaking threaten the progress of his interrogation. Oh, yes, it was clearly an interrogation he was being subjected to, Faraday had no doubt about that, and Procter, whoever he was, would be damn good at it, too; he had no doubt about that, either. But playing the Oxford Don was not going to make the purpose of their meeting more civilized than it deserved because what Faraday knew was that the end point was going to be an examination of mankind’s iniquity. He knew that and he was pretty certain that Procter knew it also, which was why he was wandering off onto this side path.
‘Why life chose to initiate itself via a spontaneous fermentation remains a mystery, of course’ Procter continued, looking at Faraday with a quizzical expression that was blatantly designed to engage him in this thought train whether he liked it or not. ‘We know the fermentation was caused by enzymes, but we don't know who put the enzymes in the water, or for what reason the bug started floating up out of the dark depths and into the ocean's light zone. Two thousand million years later it had absorbed sufficient energy from the sun to start photosynthesis; and we know what that produces. Oxygen! The staff of life! Personally, I can't get enough of it, particularly in this climate.’
A raised eyebrow was all that signalled this attempt at humour and Faraday rewarded it with a slight compression of his lips and an unfolding of the hands that lay in his lap. He sensed that Procter was imposing a pace upon him, disarming him of the energy with which he had entered the room and knowing, as only an Englishman would know of another, that civility would overrule urgency.
‘And you; how have you found the heat since coming to Vietnam?’ Procter enquired, as if they were at an Embassy tea party. ‘You’ve got around a bit since you arrived, by all accounts, and during the hot season, too. A bit of a shock after London I should think.’
Alright, Faraday thought, I’ll adjust to your pace if that’s what you want. I’m willing to wait, but I’m not going to be put off. Nothing is going to put me off, and it may be pleasant now but don’t expect it to stay that way.
‘Actually, I’m used to hot climates,’ he replied pleasantly. ‘My painting takes me pretty much everywhere and my thermostat seems to be able to adjust fairly quickly, though I’d have to say there have been one or two days when it’s got to me recently; Hoi An in particular, and Hue.’
‘Ah, Hue! Yes, it can be damn hot there. Of course, here in the Embassy we live in an artificial world created by Fujitsu air conditioning. I have mine set at 27 degrees. Any lower and I feel like I’m in a refrigerator. Is it comfortable enough for you? I’m conscious that you’ve been in hospital and …’
And what..? Faraday wondered. Was he hinting at an infirmity, perhaps; a reason for shading his purpose in being there with the suspicion that its origins lay in the recent delirium that had him at death’s door for three weeks? Was that how they were going to play it?
‘It’s perfect,’ he replied; ‘absolutely perfect.’
Shifting forward in his chair he reached out and took the business card that Procter had earlier slid across his desk and which, at first glance, had told him nothing at all about the man facing him. It still told him nothing at all.
‘I’m sorry, remind me again; are you with Home Office or Foreign Office?’ he asked innocently, watching closely and with some satisfaction as Procter put down his professorial face and adopted that of the civil servant.
‘Foreign and Commonwealth,’ he replied pleasantly and with a hint of institutional pride. ‘In the dark ages when I first joined as a lowly Administrative Assistant it was Foreign and Colonial: very non-PC. That tells you my age. Colonial is a word we’ve had to purge from our lexicon, yet it doesn’t seem so long ago. You’d probably have some views on that.’
Donald Proctor, CMG. No department and no job title; a plain, uncluttered office, bare of personal effects. No regulation portrait of Mrs Procter and child on the desk, just a large drawing pad with a collection of doodles on it, doodles which Faraday (because he was drawn to that sort of thing) would have liked to have turned around so he could interpret them.
‘CMG! That sounds lofty,’ Faraday teased, pretending not to have heard. ‘Someone obviously appreciates your work.’
‘Companion of St Michael: motto Auspicium melioris aevi – token of a better age. It’s given to those who hang around long enough.’
‘And which department have you been hanging around in?’
That was better, Faraday thought. Let’s stop the crap. If Procter thought his particular brand of civility was going to intimidate, it might be time for him to be prodded out of it. It might be time to bring a frown to his sun-wary face and a reflective hand to his aggressively shaved head. But, no, Procter chose to smile apologetically.
‘The Human Resource Group,’ he demurred. ‘It’s extraordinary how language has become the agent of inflated pomposity. Staff are now resources; vital commodities like precious metals. I suppose we can blame America for that. I prefer plain language myself. ‘Personnel’ will do, though within the Consular Directorate, which gives it a rather broad brush. Hence my involvement with this bird flu epidemic. But you were telling me about your trip down the Mekong River and I was distracting you with my thoughts about the origins of life, inspired by … what was it you commented upon? Oh, yes, the extraordinary way in which so many people rely for their survival upon the life that lurks in that huge, brown torrent of filthy water that anywhere else in the world would be condemned as unalterably polluted. But, returning to my theme for a moment, the real puzzle remains why it took another sixteen hundred million years after the establishment of this primitive life form before the ozone layer was formed, making it safe for life to come out of the water. It seems such a slow and complicated way of going about things, don’t you think? Assuming all this is the work of a high intelligence, why was the process so marred by hesitancy and indecision; particularly when you consider the speed of change since? As someone with an involvement in wildlife and ecology I’m sure you must have pondered these matters. We can only hope that this avian virus takes a similar time to mutate, otherwise we’re all going to be in serious trouble. But I’ve interrupted you. You were telling me about the purpose of your journey.’
Had he really? That’s not what he thought he was doing. The original purpose of his journey was the farthest thing from his mind. The truth was that it had become so obscured by events that he was no longer certain about its relevance, yet, when he stopped to think about it, everything that had happened did seem to be connected in some way, like a river was connected to its spring source, no matter how high and distant that source was. He’d allowed himself to be drawn into a description of his experience on the Mekong River but that description had been no more than him making conversation. It had no connection to the reason for his being there. It was neither the beginning nor the end point. So how did it connect?
‘The purpose of my journey right now,’ he answered slowly, getting to his feet, “is to know why you spirited Kenneth Johnston’s body out of Vietnam and what the hell he was doing here in the first place.’
Damned if he was going to sit in a chair like a school boy and be treated condescendingly. He was bigger than Procter; bigger, younger and fitter after all the exertions of the last few weeks, despite the illness, and he didn’t have to shave his head to hide the fact that he was going bald like his adversary because he had the full bloody mane of a cosmopolitan man of the world, a man in his prime, and he was damned if he was going to be given the run around by these bottom-dwelling fish, these emissaries of conspiracy and corruption who took refuge in the deep. It was time to bring them to the surface.
‘Spirited? I wasn’t aware of any spiriting’.
Procter got to his feet also. When a man stands it’s polite to do the same, he seemed to be saying.
‘I am aware that his body was returned to England, but that was a private arrangement. As far as I know it was not something that the Embassy organised. Are you suggesting there was something dubious about that arrangement?’
Proctor was not the wily old trout waiting in a dark pool to rise to the tempting bait of Faraday’s challenge: no, Proctor was the dark pool.
“I’m referring to the speed with which it was done,’ Faraday replied stolidly, ‘and to its reason. You know full well what I’m asking.’
Now that they were both standing, the office seemed suddenly smaller; more the size of a boxing ring, and this sense must have been felt simultaneously by both of them for they moved, as if by consent, to opposite ends of the long window that looked out over the Embassy compound to the swarm of motorbikes and scooters that choked the streets of Central Hanoi at every hour of every day, endlessly rushing like blood cells around the body of the city, keeping it alive.
‘I’m not sure that I do know precisely what you’re asking, Mr Faraday. Perhaps I’m not the right person you should be asking. Here in Vietnam the circumstances call for more than our usual duty of care, as I’m sure you’ll understand. The death of a British citizen abroad is normally a quite straight forward thing from our point of view but, in this case, it seems there was a decision to part from the norm. There is the beginning of a crisis mood developing around this bird flu outbreak and one can’t be sure how the Vietnamese are going to handle it. On balance the decision to act quickly was considered correct in the circumstances. Protocols may have been breached, but I’m sure there was a reason.’
‘They stand us on our heads at times, I’m afraid. In the world of international diplomacy there is more huff and puff about protocols than there is about starvation and war. Protocols are the clothes we wear to disguise our true form. But why does the freighting of Mr Johnston’s body back to England for burial disturb you?’
Faraday snorted, quite a deliberate, unrestrained, piggy kind of snort that left no doubt about his view that this was a preposterous question.
‘Is that what the consulate in Hanoi calls it: ‘freighting’? Was the Vietnamese Government aware that the item being freighted was a human body, or was that overlooked at the time? The reason I ask is because your own people admit that his body was brought down from Sapa on the train while I was in hospital sick as a dog and on the verge of ending up in the same state as Johnston, and every experience I have had in Vietnam leaves me in no doubt that Communist bureaucracy is still alive and well in this country and no body, particularly a foreign body, can travel beyond the jurisdiction of one official unless another official has signed for it, so I am bound to ask who signed Kenneth Johnston out of Hanoi and onto a private plane in such indecent haste after he was brought here to the Embassy from the railway station with a police escort? Is it reasonable to ask whether anyone here is willing to take responsibility for that?’
Procter took a step backwards from the window as if he had at last heard how he could help; the Civil Servant waiting to serve.
‘Absolutely! We take full responsibility for all that; but I wonder whether you would have wanted us to act differently had it been you who had died – forgive the thought. You seem to be hinting that there was something suspicious about all this when, as far as I knew, Mr Johnston was a British subject, victim of the bird flu that has struck the Northwest, as, I believe, were you - though, of course, you were more fortunate in being able to get treatment – and our mandate within the Consular Directorate is to provide every support, protection and practical assistance to British nationals overseas, not least in the case of a death. It’s a very sensitive issue. The Vietnamese want all infected bodies burned despite the fact there is no evidence that the virus is transmissible human to human. We, I gather, responded to a request to return Mr Johnston to England for a proper burial before that could happen. That’s the explanation I’ve been given. Nothing suspicious; a breach of protocol perhaps, but a fairly pragmatic one in the circumstances, I believe. You, however, appear to believe otherwise. As I say, would you have wanted us to act differently had it been you?’
‘Who made this request?’
‘His family, I presume. I could find that out for you if you think it’s relevant.’
The window was double glazed and Faraday lent his forehead against it. The glass was relatively cool, the colder air from the heat pump above falling invisibly down it like a waterfall. Because of the double glazing there was no sound at all from the traffic streaming past, only the sound of the air conditioning. Take away one or more of the senses and the body tends to float, as if in water, and that was what Faraday felt happening to him now. He could see the frenetic pace of movement on the road outside but could not link it to sound. He could feel the heat outside the window, and even in the room, but his forehead was cold. It was, in a much milder form, how he had felt drifting in and out of consciousness in the hospital for … was it really three weeks?
‘I think you’ll find,’ he answered absently, ‘that you were his family. That has become increasingly clear to me. That is why you put him on the plane so quickly. That is why you wanted him away from the centre of attention. He was one of yours.’
The window pane wasn’t cold enough. The warmth from his forehead had quickly dulled its ability to refresh him. The clear focus that had directed the energy he’d brought to this confrontation began to blur. Johnston was one of them. Yes, Johnston was definitely one of them: that was something he needed them to confirm; that was something he needed them to admit. But that was only a part of it. There were other, more important things than that; things that he had deposited around the cluttered room of his mind that he knew were there somewhere but which he couldn’t find in the gloom. If they would admit that Johnston was one of theirs it might turn a light on; he might then be able to see all the other things that he’d hidden in the room. Without that light he was going to have to feel his way around like a blind man. He needed some clarity; a starting point of certainty.
‘When you say that,’ Proctor replied calmly, after just the slightest pause, ‘I presume you are meaning that Mr Johnston was a British citizen. I’m quite sure we were satisfied of that.’
‘No, I’m saying that he was employed by the British Government. He was an operative, working under cover.’
Standing up had not been such a good idea. Christ, three weeks of fever and delirium in which he’d lost ten kilos or more in weight and he’d only been out of bed for a week: how could he expect to be at his best? Perhaps he should sit down again and take things slowly.
He pushed himself away from the window and walked carefully back to his chair, reaching for the edge of the desk to steady himself. That mane of hair with which he was so richly endowed had become a damp mop in this tropical humidity. It might have worked as a virility flag in the cold climate of Europe but it had become increasingly irritating on this journey and the most irritating thing of all was that bloody Proctor, with his No. 1 shave bordering on baldness, was making him feel like a vapid, soft-centred fop out of his depth.
‘Goodness!’ Proctor exclaimed, a hint of pleasure in his voice. ‘I haven’t heard the word ‘operative’ for so long it fills me with something akin to nostalgia. It’s a Cold War word, one of those blanket descriptions people used to throw over activities so you didn’t know what was going on beneath and were forced to use your own imagination. Have you ever come across a couple in the park on a sunny day lying beneath a blanket and not wondered what they were up to underneath it? They may be up to nothing, of course, just anticipating a change in the weather, a nip in the air. But that’s not what we imagine, is it? The blanket sets our mind to work. The word ‘operative’ tends to have the same effect, I find.’
He was in no hurry to return to his desk. Faraday had allowed him to stand by doing so himself and now Faraday was forced to sit. A slight ascendancy had been obtained but, however slight, a worthwhile one that Proctor would take advantage of.
‘The world of our imagination is filled with infinite wonder,’ Proctor continued confidently. ‘I’m sure that’s a quotation but I can’t safely provide an attribution. Suffice to say that there is no end to the possibilities we can imagine. One of my recurring delights is to lose myself in the labyrinthine twists and turns of a John le Carré novel imagining myself at the centre. Well, not exactly at the centre but, shall we say, close enough to the action to be able to put my ear to the door. But as much as I admire his writing and his undoubted success in drawing me in, I invariably put the book down feeling that I have travelled through the imagination of the writer rather than the reality of the world as I know it here in the rather dull, dumb interface where we conduct our relationships with other countries. So I am bound to ask what it is that you mean by the word ‘operative’. Do you see where I’m coming from?’
Actually, despite his struggle with fatigue, and his acute disappointment that he was unable to sustain the vigour with which he had come to this meeting, Faraday now began to feel an assurance that he hadn’t expected to feel so soon. When someone chose an ambulatory response to a plain accusation it was a sure sign that they were hedging their bets on how to reply. Proctor was stalling.
‘So you’re not denying that Johnston was one of yours,’ Faraday questioned, making sure that he got it right, ‘so much as objecting to my use of the word ‘operative’. Is that how I should understand it?’
He already knew. He already knew that this slippery bastard was busily wrapping himself and the whole fucking Western World, whatever that was, in cling foil. To preserve it or to hide the stench? Should he have expected anything different? So why was he here, he wondered? Was it merely to close the gap between what he knew and what he suspected? And how would that change anything anyway? If he was looking to salvage his pride after having been so naively deceived for so long, it wasn’t going to happen as a result of this man admitting to an official complicity in Johnston’s activities. It was going to take a massive rehabilitation in his own sense of worth and entitlement, for that was the real damage that had occurred; that was what was driving this inquisition: the restoration of Anton Faraday’s self belief. In which case it was likely to be a long journey.
Proctor decided to return to his chair. He deliberately exuded the air of a man with time to spare.
‘Let us get to the bottom of this,’ he said, pretending to a duty of care. ‘I did take the liberty of checking Kenneth Johnston’s credentials following your initial enquiry the day you were taken so badly ill here in the Embassy. At that stage we did not know that he was dead. In fact, he may not have been dead for it was ten days later that his body arrived back in Hanoi. But you had pointedly enquired whether he was an employee of Her Majesty’s Government and I, coming from the Human Resources side of things, looked into it and could find nothing to suggest he was engaged on Government business. What I did find, and what I suspect you already knew from your own involvement, was that he once held a reasonably high profile position in the Paladin Foundation for the Environment: Public Affairs Director, or some such title, which is why his name would have featured in their publicity releases, albeit that they were a few years old. But you know all this because your name featured quite prominently in some of those releases at one stage also, as I recall. You were their artist of record, so to speak, capturing the images of the most highly threatened species. I’m going by what can be found on Google. These days it is our most important tool for intelligence gathering.’
He smiled and wiped his hands across the drawing pad on his desk as though he was smoothing that metaphorical blanket that covered the fanciful imaginings of his guest.
‘Does that concur with what you know of him, or is there more, of which I’m unaware?’
Of course, Faraday thought; that was bound to be the way he would play it. He could afford to keep batting that way all day and no-one would score any runs, but no-one would lose any wickets either.
‘Paladin is just one of the many Non Governmental Organisations operating in this part of the world,’ Proctor continued, ‘because, as I’m sure you know, the wildlife and ecology in South East Asia has taken quite a hammering, what with the internecine struggles that have been a feature of recent decades, but also on account of the local appetite for the organs of wild animals which remains unabated so long as men value their potency. Mr Johnston was here in Vietnam, I presume, on account of the work that his organisation was involved in, but we at the Embassy do not have much contact with these organisations because, as their name implies, they are Non Governmental and it is precisely that status that they are keen to preserve if they are to have the trust of the local authorities. On occasion we may meet socially or have reason to help with passport matters, for instance, but generally speaking we operate in different worlds. No-one here at the Embassy has had any dealings with Mr Johnston, from what I can gather, so I can’t throw any light on what he was doing here other than to say he was not ‘one of us’, as you so delicately put it. But you would know better than I what projects interest Paladin. Would that have something to do with your time spent in the Mekong Delta? I was particularly interested in your comments about the life forms that flourish in that environment because there is, of course, a parallel with the cycle of mutations in these deadly viruses that we are faced with now. Fascinating! Do tell me more.’