When Reginald first entered Cuthbert’s office, he blinked. At first almost inconspicuously, and then far more violently. It seemed to him, that either his own eyes had melted somewhat, or that the office was made of a kind of wax that could not sustain its own weight. His eyes traveled to the ceiling fan, which did not move, but hung in a wilting fashion. Then, he noticed a potted plant, something like a fern, which hung its leaves over a dark pot with the arc of barrels thrown overboard by desperate sailors on a sinking ship. The furniture seemed to sag as well, as if underwater, and affected by rot.
The man behind the desk – Mr. Rathbone, he reminded himself – also seemed to be seeking some kind of lazy consummation with the earth’s core. The bald head had a fringe of longish, lank hair hanging over the ears, like oil slowly threading its way off a pink dome. The chin – chins, rather – must have presented various difficulties to the knotting of ties, and Reginald suddenly imagined several servants holding up the jowls with some sort of device – possibly the same kind as builders used to carry bricks up ladders – while another servant knotted the tie, reaching into the flesh for the delicate operation, like a veterinarian groping for a breached calf. The shoulders were almost as one with the upper arms. The chest was similarly intimate with the belly. Reginald could not see Cuthbert’s legs, but had an idea that they sort of meandered under the desk, trailing off like tentacles. Standing before this slow, arrested waterfall of vision, Reginald straightened his own back slightly, then bowed.
“Good morning, Mr. Rathbone,” he said.
“Mr. Spencer,” said Cuthbert slowly. Once, as a child, Reginald had watched a football game going on a great distance away, and had been fascinated by the span of time between a ball being kicked and the faint thwup hitting his ears. Similarly, Mr. Rathbone’s mouth worked for at least a second before it produced sound.
Reginald was fascinated. Cuthbert’s eyes seemed like two black holes. They did not blink – there seemed no need to. The eyelids were so low that Reginald thought of a window with the shutters almost down. The man inside would never awaken; the colours on his walls would never fade. There would never be any shadows. It would be like the inside of a deep cloud…
Reginald shivered. The man sitting before him was perfect – perfect in a way which was almost impossible to define, it hit the senses so completely. Almost everyone I meet, thought Reginald in a flash, is only part of a certain principle, or is a little land of warring principles, or speaks of principles they would break in a flash, for a handshake or a half-penny. But this man is a principle. He is perfect…
Reginald felt something loosen within him. It was a gentle kind of falling; a relief, like someone who has waited in suspense for a sagging wall to finally give way. Something which could never have stood has finally fallen; now the way is clear, the view is clear, and we can move forward at last!
Reginald got the distinct impression that Cuthbert was following his thoughts with the practiced ease of a devil lazy in the certainty of his temptations. This one is already mine; he needs not even a push, but only a concluding wink!
“Please, Mr. Spencer,” said Cuthbert slowly. His hand did not rise to gesture at the chair, but Reginald thought he saw a slithering ripple of movement under the cloth covering the man’s forearm.
“Thank you,” said Reginald.
“What can I do for you?” asked Cuthbert.
Reginald noticed that the man’s telephone was covered in dust. No – the receiver was not, but the telephone itself was.
“You want to work. For me,” prompted Cuthbert.
“Because – I believe that the Foreign Office has a great mission.”
Reginald laughed. “Well, I would scarcely deign to instruct you about…”
“I did not ask you to instruct me.” Cuthbert’s words could seem sharp, or critical, but they were not. He simply stated a fact, as one might say, to a waiter, “I did not ask for a cup of coffee.”
Reginald nodded. Another part of his wall gave way. He said: “I believe that England must do its part to keep peace in the world…”
As an ex-academic, Reginald was so used to stopping to gather implicit agreement from his listener that he had developed a slightly staccato method of speaking. He noticed that Cuthbert did not give any indication whatsoever as to his opinion of Reginald, and this caused Reginald to forget what he was about to say.
“Do not look for my approval, young man,” said Cuthbert. “Positions here are neither won nor maintained by flattery.”
“I…” Reginald felt a little butterfly of delight come loose and flutter about in his ribcage. He knows – he sees! “I think that England will soon detach itself from its Empire… And that that process will be delicate, and slow. Detailed. We will have to… navigate some very tricky waters. And there is the matter of the dictator nations. If this man Hitler gets in, we shall have a new situation. Unprecedented since – Napoleon…”
It was no use. Cuthbert’s lack of response kept derailing him. Blood pumped into his cheeks, and he suddenly felt very angry. He wanted to leap over the desk and strike this melted, shapeless figure sitting across from him. Who are you to judge me? he screamed internally, and for a moment, his leg muscles jumped, and he was a hairs-breadth from leaping up and storming from the room.
“I say,” murmured Cuthbert. There was a leathery creak as the man’s chair complained, but Reginald could see no actual movement. “You are,” he continued, “a rather intense fellow, aren’t you?”
Reginald smiled in a rather sickly manner. From the heights of cloud-wreathed rage, he ploughed into the wet earth of humiliation. “Yes, my wife would have to agree with you,” he said.
“Now that has my attention,” said Cuthbert. “Tell me about your wife.”
“Well, she is tall. Very lovely. We met in Spain. Married right away. It’s rather thorny with her family. They have cut her off. We hope to change things. With a baby. I speak German. And French. Quite well.”
Cuthbert nodded slowly. “Yes – I can see that. Marriage in Spain. Right away. Very intense indeed.”
A pause settled on the pair. Reginald felt prickles down the back of his neck. Not sweat, just tension. He could no longer imagine the world outside. London, the streets, the people – even the receptionist outside – were all gone. This was a universe of one room. The door behind him would now only open on a brick wall, or black space. Nothing would rush in. Nothing could get out.
But strangely, all that he wanted was to get this job. I will not fail in this interview! I will not crawl back to Oxford to waste five years getting a doctorate while real men in the real world perform real actions! What I write at Oxford will be shelved to feed worms. What I write here would shape history!
And then, as Cuthbert’s glazed eyes gazed at him, Reginald had a sudden inspiration.
“I came here because there are no other jobs,” he said, with a flashing, tentative smile.
Cuthbert’s eyes did not change expression, but they seemed to focus somewhat. Reginald felt that his share of the attention of Cuthbert’s entire personality had risen from 2% to, perhaps, 4%.
“I am going to be a father,” he continued. “My wife’s family has money, but we can’t get at it. I think that I could be good at this job, but I don’t have any real ideas about how to do it. Everyone knows what the economy is like. Anyone who comes in here and tells you how fascinating foreign affairs are is – not telling the whole truth. But I don’t want to come here and hide behind a desk. I think it would be interesting work. I am at your mercy. But I am qualified.”
Reginald forced himself to stop. He was actually quite fascinated to hear what he would have to say next – he was discovering quite a bit about himself through the process of speaking extemporaneously. He waited to see what Cuthbert would say.
“Right,” said Reginald, sitting forward on his chair. His face muscles seemed to be pulling in too many directions. I wonder what I shall say next? “I think that the last war was a great mistake. Negotiations should have won out. And Versailles was beyond awful. It has set the stage for what we face now. German’s are weird. They can’t coexist. They can only be masters or slaves. But they are very efficient, which makes them dangerous, because all modern wars are wars of attrition…”
No, that wasn’t working at all. Cuthbert’s eyes were glazing over even more.
“But that is only important if I get the job – and even then, only after many years, when I am in a position to dictate policy – assuming you have retired, of course!” Reginald said, with a little giggle. “What is more important is that I am having great doubts about my marriage, which means that I shall be more than happy to travel, and will be willing and able to spend a lot of hours in the office, even when I don’t have to! But I will want to protect my children – we are going to have more than one, of course – probably to keep Wendy busy, so she can stop making lists of things for me to do! And my language skills are really impeccable. And I am a modern man. I don’t believe all this rot about the honour of the Empire. It’s a vain, costly proposition to run the world, and it has broken our back, financially. And really, what’s wrong with letting the Indians get back to killing themselves? Why would I want to face economic – why would I have to be out of job prospects so that some Hindus I will never meet will keep their daggers in their scabbards? It’s nonsense. England for the English, I say!”
Cuthbert’s eyes were definitely amused now. It was not condescension. Giving the older man only the briefest of glances, Reginald plunged on.
“And we can’t have guns and butter, not now that capitalism is in ruins. We’ll have no choice but to negotiate, because the working man must have his tea! War has become inconceivable. I really want this job, Mr. Rathbone. The more I talk about it, the more excited I become. But please don’t let me babble. Tell me if I have a chance, any kind of chance at all…”
There was another long pause, and Reginald knew that words were gathering in Cuthbert’s throat, like seagulls on a streak of bloody sea.
“I don’t imagine,” said Cuthbert finally, “that we shall find much use for you as a diplomat at the moment, Mr. Spencer, since you either lie badly or tell too much truth. A diplomat must never be seen to be thinking aloud. Policy is never decided on the spur of the moment. A diplomat is a mouthpiece. He is not paid to think, but to speak the words of others. An actor would be a better metaphor. They are chosen for their plausibility. And their grooming. Their language skills can be important, but it is rarely a good thing for those we negotiate with to know that we speak their language flawlessly. Misinterpretation is a perfectly valid strategy. As far as that goes, what weighs for you also weighs against you. But you see, you are a conflicted man, which is entirely suitable to your age and lack of experience. And that will never do. Composure is essential. To negotiate, your inner state must be utterly inaccessible.” Cuthbert smiled, finally. It was not for the faint of heart. “And there is no better way to be inaccessible to others than to be inaccessible to yourself. But that is for another time…”
Reginald’s ears pricked up at the last phrase, which was of a decidedly positive nature.
“If you want to work for the Foreign Office, it is essential that you become a foreigner to yourself, to your native land, your family, children and cherished personal opinions. Like a policeman, you can have no opinion about the law. None. We are not interested in your thoughts, Mr. Spencer. Save your intensity for the amateur stage. Or an affair. Now it is my belief that you are still not telling me the entire truth, Mr. Spencer. I do not criticize you for this. You have spoken more truth here today than I have heard in a good while. Perhaps more truth than you yourself have heard in a good while. But it is not enough. I am an exacting taskmaster, Mr. Spencer. If you want to negotiate for England, you shall have to lie a good deal. And I allow no men on my staff to lie without knowing the truth. To lie without knowing the truth is to lie incompetently, Mr. Spencer, and if there is one thing I hate, it is incompetence. So tell me why you are interested in this job.”
Reginald spoke instantly.
“I want to use the sacrifice of my academic career as a weapon against my wife.”
Cuthbert’s lidded eyes closed. A sensual thrill coursed almost visibly through his sloping body. He seemed to hear a high, lovely note that only a connoisseur can appreciate.
When he spoke, his voice was whispery, paper-thin.
“You have the job, Mr. Spencer.”
Cuthbert’s eyes did not open, but Reginald did not know that, since his own were closed.