Strangers

Were not all appropriate to your comforts,

But chartered unto them, what would you think

To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;

And this your mountanish inhumanity.

Sir Thomas More: Act 2, Scene 4

Francis lengthened his stride, reached forward to the ornate brass handle and pulled, opening the heavy oak door, before stepping aside to let Flora through.

‘You’ll find yourself in trouble if you carry on that way,’ she said as she passed.

What way, Francis wondered? She means the door. Surely not? Hadn’t I done the same only this morning when coming in with Michael? I’d open any door for anyone.

Flora smiled back at him over her shoulder. ‘Are you coming then or are you going to wait for another helpless woman to happen by?’ Francis fell in beside her as they approached the boardroom. He liked her very much. Good and decent. Witty, sharp and going to the places Francis was content to be returning from.

He saw through the glass wall that Michael was already seated at the head of the oval walnut-topped table around which were arranged a dozen or more identical black and chrome chairs. Michael swivelled a silver pen through his fingers like an impatient Majorette at morning parade, tapping it down every three twirls to set up a regular rhythm altogether at odds with the tiny jerky twitches that tormented the muscles around his eyes. He’d explained these tics to Francis as an unwanted genetic inheritance. Francis wondered about a more psychological cause. They visibly worsened when Michael was parrying a critical lunge from one of the covetous colleagues now circling the room in conversational twos and threes waiting for the signal that the meeting was about to begin. Do they stop when he’s at home, Francis wondered. Two children. A lawyer for a partner. Not wed, but who is these days? Contented and settled then? Tic free domesticity maybe? Contentment brings its own anxieties in a person with such a nervous disposition though. He might wonder deep down, how long will it last? An unexpected slap in the face one day that ends it all, just when you’ve relaxed.

‘Shall we …?’ Michael suggested to the room.

Flora paused at the side table to pour a black coffee and slipped into a chair two down from Michael. Francis poured himself a glass of water from the carafe in the centre of the table and stepped three places down table from Flora. Below the salt will do fine, he reasoned. Give me time to fade and ponder. Not my agenda. Matthew the Money Man sat between Michael and Flora and flipped open his laptop. Josh, all bright and shiny new, placed himself on the right of Michael, reddened faintly at his cheek, and cleared his throat, ‘Ahem’. Amen indeed, thought Francis. Jo sat beside Francis and slipped him a paper on the new recruitment drive and passed a pile across the table to Gabby, who, having succeeded in balancing two mobile phones on top of an ipad, received the paper shower as if they were hailstones on a May morning. ‘We need the good news out on the internal and external networks ASAP and identify any noise interference through a data analysis two weeks before deadline,’ one said to the other so quickly and without even exchanging eye contact that Francis couldn’t be sure who had even spoken.

‘Let us begin,’ said Michael laying down his pen and placing his hands palm down on the desktop. Francis heard him run swiftly through the first item on the agenda:

The powers that be had approved the five-year plan;

Performance indicators were green across the critical issues;

Operational reach was extended.

Francis drifted off as the second item was introduced, locking his eyes on the view from the 17th floor window over Vauxhall and Lambeth bridges east toward the Palace of Westminster. Tate Britain sat on the site of an old prison, a holding tank for convicts awaiting transportation down the Thames and out across the seas to Botany Bay. Hold deportees closer to airports now, ready to fly them back to God alone knows what fate. Different clientele in the galleries now. Pacing up and own, staring at the walls just the same, but easy exit through the gift shop these days. I wonder do the paintings feel themselves victims of a mass voyeurism or are they so narcissistic that they believe themselves authors of their own fate? Would an early Turner, say the The Bay of Baiae, feel envy when the door swung open to reveal, over the shoulder of that spotty-faced gap-year student from Sacramento doing Europe in a month, The Departure of the Fleet, that is placed a little closer to the gift shop? The younger painting by the older artist holds the greater value. Beauty affronts age? Berger would have the answer, if he’s finished his crucifixion up at the National. Thrown out on his ear and sent back to France and the peasant life. Privatised now and the chairs all gone anyway. Marks of woe. He’d be safe coming again. Was it wrong to show Flora good manners with that door then? Mirrors the man. Goethe was it? No longer required. Just a relic of old decency. What’s decency anyway? All tap-tapping and swiping this way and that. Pick a lover, choose a cause. Just for now, no more. Swipe it away and start again. Follow a trend and send your conscience viral with an ice-bucket on Vine or tweet the news that you’re just giving. Medium is the Message, I suppose. Ended up with a massage. Handy that. Turned it into a bestseller. Proved his own point very well. I wouldn’t have their pressures though. A harder life it is for these younger ones. Too public a display of our private compassion makes a stone. I wonder if it’s true that even the best of them …

‘Francis, will you go? Francis, please. I know you hate the travelling, but they love you. You are the department to them.’ Eyes rolled down the table and came to rest on him. ‘Of course, Michael,’ he heard himself say. ‘When?’

***

Francis came in from the balcony where he had been watching the early risers settling down to toast themselves under the sun and contemplated himself in the hotel mirror. Loose white shirt and khaki chinos. Light tan lace ups, rather than sandals, for formality’s sake. Betwixt and between the ages, he smiled to himself. Prescription shades, a satchel full of old saws and a fair round belly. Not the pantaloon though, not quite yet. Like the feel of this. Sensuous work. Out and about with real people again.

He again read over the position paper he had been given as his script for the rounds of diplomatic meetings to come and once more marvelled at how it was possible, sitting in an office block in London, to reduce to bullet point prose such a magnitude of human misery as washes up on the beaches and coves of this over-heated island each day.

Some of it was obvious enough, he supposed.

There would be a poor reception on the streets at home. However many click and send online petitioners say they want the government to tear down the borders, the truth is that it is a cut-throat world and destitute foreigners are not wanted.

Millions could come. Thousands would be trampled and drowned in the rush.

Better by far to keep them close to home.

So, he must persuade the partners to keep new arrivals in camps here. Stem the flow. Stay put, out here – far enough away from the bombs and far enough away from us.

A tent, a food parcel and the offer of a free ticket back to their last port of call. It might not sound much, but it was something for people who had nothing.

He took the lift to the ground floor and walked out past the yellow taxis. He decided to walk the mile to the conference centre. It was uphill but it was still early, the sun was low and he would have the cooling breeze from the beach at his back for the climb.

‘I saw you leaving the hotel.’

‘I’m sorry?’

The man’s rough calico shirt was faded but carried a trace here and there of deepest blue. A man who had need of a formal business wardrobe might once have owned those trousers, Francis thought, but they are hanging loose and soiled on this man. His feet were shod in bleached desert boots tied with mismatched laces.

‘I don’t think I know you,’ Francis said.

‘No,’ the man replied in confirmation, or was that inflection a question or even an accusation?

‘I don’t wish to be rude, but I do have to be somewhere,’ Francis said as he glanced at the man’s leathered face and stepped up the pace just enough to discreetly convey his intention to leave the man behind.

‘We have become strangers to each other,’ the man continued, ‘driven into different seas. And yet, here we are. For a few moments walking side by side on the same path, sharing the same morning sun, but going in different directions, no doubt.’

‘Yes,’ said Francis, ‘perhaps. I have to get to the conference centre up there. I’m a little late already, I’m afraid.’

‘Indeed, breakfast is hardly over yet it does seems quite late in the day. For the conference, I mean,’ said the man, whose stride was now matching Francis’s.

‘You know about it, the conference? I didn’t imagine people like … people here, would have heard about it.’

‘Well, you see enough wretched strangers about this place, some with babies on their backs, and can’t but take an interest in what’s going on.’

‘I see. And you? What is your interest, exactly?’

The two men stopped and faced each other. He’s face is thin, gaunt even, thought Francis. His English is near perfect.

‘Francis, you and I… You don’t remember and who could blame you. Two old acquaintances, so changed by time and events that we meet here as strangers. At least, I am a stranger to you, no doubt because time and events have marked me with the greater changes. Perhaps, if you had lived as I and I as you, then our positions on this street may have been reversed, and I would look upon you as the stranger.’

They stood toe to toe and Francis could see some distant reflection of himself through the man’s eyes.

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