THE GLASS PALACE CHRONICLE

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Published Date:31-07-2017
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1 THE GLASS PALACE CHRONICLE Patricia le Roy2 Prologue LONDON October 1990 Everything was ready. She laid the syringe on the edge of the washbasin and stowed the instruments neatly away in her handbag. The sounds of voices and laughter filtered dimly down from the floor above. The party was in full swing. She had made the call from the basement storeroom five minutes ago. Even if Roland had heard the sound of the phone being replaced in its cradle, there was nothing he could do about it. The new exhibition had attracted a lot of attention and there were at least fifty people in the gallery. In any case, he had no reason to be suspicious. She brushed her hair carefully back from her face and applied fresh lipstick. Death was a friend: one should go to meet him looking one's best. There was a whole gram of heroin in the syringe, ten times the normal dose. She had left nothing to chance. She sat down on the closed toilet seat and rolled up her sleeve. Since she had made her decision two days earlier she had been conscious of a vast inner lightness, as if a weight had been lifted from her heart. Subconsciously she had known for a long time that this was how it would end. Heroin was another country: it had no frontiers. No one escaped. There was only one way to get free of it. She had tried five times to give it up and she was weary of struggling. Even if Philip hadn't been coming back next week, she might have done it now anyway. Someone tried the door handle. "Just a minute," she called, and picked up the syringe. Time was running out. Soon Roland would notice her absence and start fretting that there was no one to replenish the glasses and hand round the petits fours. She started looking for a vein in her left arm. Faintly in the distance came the sound of police sirens, growing closer. She was not afraid. Now at this moment, all she could think of was the shoot. Still she had a moment's fleeting regret for Philip. It was a shabby way to treat him after all he had done for her. But he had always understood her, better even than their parents, and maybe, after reading the note she had left in the flat, he would understand this too. She found the vein on the third try. Now that the shoot was just seconds away, everything else was wiped out of her mind. Blood began to seep up into the syringe. The sirens stopped. There was a sudden silence on the floor above. Now. She pressed the plunger. Her heart felt as if it was being torn apart and her skull wrenched off her head. The flash, the glorious, the ultimate flash. And then the darkness hit her like a dead weight. When the police arrived three minutes later and broke the door down, she had slipped off the seat on to the floor. She was lying on her back with her eyes open. The needle was still stuck in the vein. Her heart had ceased to beat. 3 Part One PARIS January 1993 Caroline was dead. She had been dead for two years, two months, and 27 days. In any case, she would never have set foot in a place like this. Far less sat at the bar alone, a target for the eyes and minds of every casual male drinker in the place. Still it was odd how the girl at the bar was sitting in exactly the same way Caroline used to sit, with her hair falling round her face and her shoulders hunched protectively round her glass. The girl looked up from her drink and he went rigid in his seat. It was Caroline. He could feel the blood draining from his face. It couldn't be Caroline. Caroline was dead. Or was she? After all, he had missed the funeral, he had never seen her dead He took another swallow of whisky and got a grip on himself. Of course it wasn't Caroline. But the resemblance was extraordinary. He went on staring. The same olive skin, the same faintly Oriental features, the same air of fragility. The girl had seen his reaction. She was looking directly at him. Their eyes met. She picked up her drink and slid off the stool. Too late he realized what a girl like that was doing in a bar like this. She had misinterpreted his look and now she was coming to negotiate her terms. She walked confidently across the room, followed by the eyes of all the lone male drinkers round the bar with their demis de bière. She was dressed entirely in black, unfamiliar layered garments, short sleeves over long sleeves, an odd kind of draped skirt over some kind of trousers, and heavy black laced-up boots. Clothes that contrived both to reveal and conceal her body at the same time. The English students sitting a couple of tables away with their backpacks and county accents looked up curiously as she went past. The man in the rumpled business suit across the aisle stopped gazing ardently at his much younger girlfriend and gave her an assessing glance. She reached his table and looked down with a sudden air of diffidence. "Je peux m'asseoir?" He had the impression that if he said no, she would simply retreat back to her stool. "Si vous voulez." He gestured vaguely at the seat opposite. She put her glass down on the table and slid on to the banquette. Close up the resemblance was both more and less striking. Caroline had favoured white and pastels: he could not remember ever seeing her in black, let alone the exotic garments that this girl wore, but the skin, the hair, the features were all uncannily alike. "Alors," said the girl, in a tone that fell only a few degrees short of overt aggressivity, "je vous plais?" He wasn't sure how to answer that. Instead he said, "Vous êtes française?" "Non, anglaise." "Really?" That was the last thing he had been expecting. She certainly didn't sound anglaise. "Yes, really. You too?" Her voice was nothing like Caroline's. Caroline's voice had been light and high-pitched, this girl's was low and grave. 4 "I'm sorry to stare, but you look exactly like someone I ... I know." She nodded, apparently taking this in her stride. "What's your name?" He hesitated. "Paul." "I'm delighted to meet you, Paul. My name's Claudia." No Scottish burr in her voice either. She spoke standard, middle-class English. She could have been from anywhere. "What are you doing in Paris, Paul?" she went on. "Do you live here, or are you over on business?" "I'm just passing through." "Ah. Are you on your way back to England or have you just come from there?" "I just left," he said tersely. "What about you? What are you doing here?" "I'm on my way back. As soon as I get enough cash together, that is. Why that bloody country has to be an island, I don't know. If one could just hitchhike there like everywhere else, life would be so much simpler." "You've run out of money?" "You got it." She smiled ferociously. "I don't actually plan to make a career out of what I'm doing now." "Don't you have parents or family in England who could send you the money for the fare?" Her lips compressed into a thin line. "No." "Then why not try the Consulate?" "Oh I did," she said airily. "It didn't work out." Paul blinked. What was that supposed to mean? Repatriating stranded citizens was one of the routine functions of British Consulates in foreign cities. But she was looking at him in a way that placed further questioning firmly off-limits. "I ... see. But isn't there some other way you could earn the money to get home?" "Nope. There's nothing out there nothing that pays serious money, that is. It's the recession. I did some waitressing last month and after that I got a few hours cleaning people's houses, which was okay for pocket money, but then the guy I was living with threw me out, I can't afford a hotel, the escort agencies won't have me... It doesn't leave one much choice." The students had paid their bill and were heading off towards the Gare du Nord and the last train home. The portly middle-aged waiter, who had served Paul for the past three nights and was beginning to greet him as a regular, hovered at the edge of Paul's vision, his tray balanced on three fingers of his left hand and his right thumb hooked into the pocket of his striped waistcoat. Paul looked at Claudia. The glass of red wine she had brought with her probably the cheapest drink one could get in a French bar was empty. "Would you like another glass of wine?" "Oh. Yes. No. No more wine, thank you. But I think I" She broke off and appeared to sift mentally through a series of alternatives. "I'd like a grand creme please." Paul signalled to the waiter. "Anything to eat?" "Oh. Yes. Thank you, that would be very nice," she said with unexpected demureness. "It's late though, I don't know if they're still serving." "Vous pouvez faire un sandwich pour Madame?" suggested Paul, and the waiter gave Claudia an appraising look and said that no doubt they could, would that be ham, cheese, or rillettes? Ham and cheese, she said. When he came back with the sandwich she fell on it as if she hadn't eaten for a week. 5 "Sorry," she said, when she had finished. "That can't have been a very edifying spectacle. I guess I was hungrier than I thought." "Would you like another?" "No. No thanks. That was just fine." The waiter brought her coffee and she smiled up at him. Her smile was just like Caroline's too. Paul closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, she was watching him gravely. The smile had disappeared. "Who do I remind you of?" "My sister. My half-sister actually. Forgive my asking, but are you part- Chinese too?" "One-quarter. My mother's half-English, half-Chinese. She was born in Hong Kong." "And your father?" "Italian, God rot him." Caroline had been half-Chinese, half-English. Her mother had been from Hong Kong too, but their father, as far as Paul knew, was pure English. He wondered what odd coincidence of genes had engineered this extraordinary likeness. The couple on the other side of the aisle got up to leave. The man, helping his companion with her coat, gave Paul a leer of connivance over her green wool shoulder. Avoiding his eyes, Paul felt for his wallet and looked to see how much it contained. "How much do you need to get across the Channel?" Claudia opened her eyes wide in surprise. "You mean you'd give me the money for my fare? Because I look like your sister?" "How much is it?" he repeated. "No." She shook her head firmly. "It's kind of you, but no. One, I don't take favours. Not from anyone. Two, I don't intend to go back on the bloody ferry, you know. It's too damn cold at this time of year. I'm going to wait till I can afford a plane ticket." Paul raised his eyebrows. "First class or business class?" "I'll settle for economy." "Plus of course a taxi from the airport to where do your parents live?" "My mother lives in Surrey," she said, and then added, "Though it's none of your business. I don't know why I'm telling you all this. Do you treat your sister like this too?" Paul thrust his wallet back into his pocket. "My sister's dead." "Really? Oh my God. So that's why you looked as though you'd seen a ghost. Was she my age?" "More or less." "Was it an accident?" "Yes." "You don't want to talk about it. I'm sorry. Okay then, I guess... Maybe I should..." She drained her coffee cup. "Look, it's been nice talking to you, and I really appreciate your offer, but" "You don't have to go." She looked at him and smiled briefly. "I'm afraid I do." "Why? So you can pick up one of those guys over there and earn a hundred francs to put towards your plane ticket?" "One hundred francs?" she said disdainfully. "You must be joking"6 "If it's the big time you're after," Paul retorted, "you've got the wrong neighborhood." "I know that. Last night I tried the sixteenth arrondissement. Nice area, people use deodorant, hold open a door for you now and again. They even know what to do with the imperfect subjunctive. I earned a lot of money and a night in a hotel room, but Jesus, I couldn't go through that again. Some of the things the guy wanted me to do I'd never even heard of. So tonight I thought I'd go a bit farther down-market. The hotel for the night's going to be a bit trickier to manage, but at least no one over there reminds me of my father." For a few moments they sat in silence. Claudia's face was turned away from him, looking past him towards the far end of the room, where the lights were turned low and the tables were empty. She wasn't Caroline, she was sharper and edgier and more streetwise than Caroline, but on appearances alone it could have been Caroline sitting across the table from him. "Do you take drugs?" he demanded abruptly. "No." The tone was categorical. He believed her at once. "What's your rate for the night?" "What? You? Oh." Calculation chased surprise across her face. "I was going to ask five hundred, but for you I'll do four." "Five. I don't take favours either." "Okay." "Shall we go?" Claudia's outdoor wear consisted of a vast but shabby cloak and a long knitted scarf. Standing beside her, he realized that she was about Caroline's height too. Small by Western standards: only an inch or two over five feet. As they left, one of the men at the bar made a crack and all the others laughed. Paul didn't understand the words, but the sense was easy enough to grasp. Claudia turned and spat something back at them. The laughter stopped abruptly. "Enculés," she said angrily when they were outside on the pavement. "Sometimes I really hate men oh Jesus, I'm sorry." "That's all right. I admire your command of French." "Thank you." "How long have you been here?" "Five months this trip. I've been working my way back up from Italy, actually." She stopped and scowled, and then added, "I was in Lille for a while last year though." "Have you any luggage?" "It's in a locker at the Gare du Nord." "Do you want to collect it ?" "Not for one night. I have some stuff in here." She tapped her large black shoulder bag. "We have to go there anyway to find a taxi." "Actually, it's so bloody cold, I've got most of my clothes on me already." Paul shrugged. "As you like." They began to walk towards the Gare du Nord. The night was black and bitter and an icy wind streamed down the boulevard. "Why are you doing this, Paul?" she demanded. "You aren't the type to pick up a girl in a bar. You're only doing it because I look like your sister, aren't you?" "What does it matter why I'm doing it as long as you get paid?" "That's true too. Where do you live?"7 "Over in the Eighth, just off boulevard Haussmann." "Nice area. Not as nice as the sixteenth, of course." "You said you were slumming tonight." "So I did." "Actually it's not mine. I'm just borrowing a friend's flat while he's out of town." The friend, Claudia decided, was a monk. Who else would live in a flat as bare and impersonal as a hotel room? A five-star hotel room, to be sure, with plenty of fake Louis Whosit chairs and machine-made Oriental carpets, but no sea shells marked A Present from Siena, or wherever Paul and his fancy friends went on their holidays, no back numbers of the Guardian, none of the cultural bric à brac of the consumer classes. She perched on a stiff brocade chair in the sitting room no, that was the wrong word for something as grand as this, it was closer to what her father would call a salotto sipping her whisky and taking in the scenery. There was something very odd about this flat. People who bought fake period furniture usually invested in the complete works of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart and Tolstoy at the same time. And with all the galleries in this area, you'd think someone could have nipped out and picked up a couple of tasteful artworks to brighten up the acres of pale beige wallpaper. Yet there were no books in this room, no CDs, no videocassettes, not even a television set. Apparently the monk belonged to an order that had forsworn art, culture and information at one fell swoop. But not technology. There was an answering machine in a small study leading off the hall, and Paul had shut himself up there to deal with his messages. First, however, he had apologised to Claudia for leaving her to her own devices and offered her a drink. Whisky or Perrier or both together? Noting the bareness of the monk's cellar, Claudia had chosen whisky on its own. It was her father's drink, it was even his brand, but that couldn't be helped. The two large glasses she had drunk the previous night had helped her maintain her equanimity throughout the evening. It might be wise to take the same precaution tonight, even though the proceedings promised to be considerably less of an ordeal. Paul, as far as she could judge, occupied the middle ground between the aristocratic perversity of last night and the wham-bam contempt of the Arabs, blue- overalled workers and late-night drinkers who had propositioned her so far today. The down side was that, having got her home with him, she had a strong suspicion he wouldn't have much idea what to do next. The initiative was going to have to come from her. Probably she should undress and get into bed like they did in the movies. Save everyone a lot of embarrassment. She got up and moved towards the door. First, however, she was going to case the joint. One, for clues to the monk's identity, and two, for food. The flat was larger than she had expected. Besides the study and the salotto there were four bedrooms and two bathrooms. One of the rooms had a suitcase on the floor and a sweater on a chair, and was presumably Paul's. The other three were unused and empty: the monk, wherever he was, had taken his robes and alms bowl with him. She looked into Paul's wardrobe and was relieved to see that it contained the same kind of nondescript clothes he was wearing tonight. Not a Gucci loafer or Armani blazer in sight. Of course, Paul was nothing like her father or she wouldn't be here in the first place. To begin with, he was a good ten years younger. Early forties, at a guess, and blond. On first sight, he could pass for some kind of academic: spectacles,8 longish hair, faint air of aloofness. Claudia did not, however, believe that he was an academic. British academics in Paris stayed in crummy Left-Bank hotels and did not offer charity to indigent compatriots. It was hard to say what he was. Living in a place like this, and lying to her about it, he was probably a serial murderer or a white slaver. She tried the suitcase, but it was locked. Looking around for possible clues, she spotted a book on the bedside table. Show me what you read, and I'll tell you who you are. The book was called Pagan: The Glass Palace Chronicles of the Kings of Burma. Burma? She focused on the one word that made sense. The picture on the front showed some kind of Eastern temple. Maybe Paul was a Buddhist. Or else his landlord was. She replaced the book and went to check the bathrooms. There was nothing to be seen in either of them but Paul's shaving tackle, sitting neatly in the bathroom adjoining his bedroom, along with a bottle of shampoo. The monk neither washed his hair nor got headaches. The kitchen was right at the end of the passage, dazzling white plastic from floor to ceiling. Too clean by half. It didn't look as if much cooking went on in this flat. No eating either. There was no dining room, not even a dining table, which was odd for a fancy place like this. The fridge contained one litre of milk, one packet of butter, one bottle of mineral water. On the counter were a jar of Nescafé and a packet of biscottes. She made a beeline for the latter. Breakfast today had consisted of an apple she had swiped off a stall in the street, and lunch had been a packet of biscuits consumed in a discreet corner of the supermarket. Partly because she had stowed the aristocrat's money in her bra for safe-keeping, and partly because it would have been defeating the object of the exercise to spend it on food. She took a handful of biscottes and went back to the bedroom. Paul was still on the phone. She would take a look at his book on Burma and then get undressed. Paul had found three messages on the answering machine: Rebecca wanting to know about arrival dates and hotel rooms, Adrian asking him to call when he got in, and finally Emma, umm-ing and ah-ing and plainly unsure what kind of message to leave. In the sudden hope that she might have changed her mind, he called Emma first, only to discover that she had merely been having an attack of guilt and needed reassuring. It took a good twenty minutes to convince her that yes he understood the situation, yes he was bound to find someone else, no it didn't really matter if he had to go on his own. None of which was the slightest bit true. Without all those years of professionally- instilled patience, he doubted whether he could have stopped himself from suggesting very sharply that if she felt as bad as all that about her defection there was still time to change her mind, given that he was due to leave in three days' time and had practically no chance at all of replacing her between now and then. By the time he had finally soothed her off the line, checked in with Adrian, whose ostensibly urgent need to communicate seemed to be focused mainly on finding out how Paul had spent his evening, and asked Rebecca to book him a room in Rangoon for Saturday night, it was half past twelve. He was dead tired, and there was still this girl to be dealt with. The flat was silent. He went in search of her. A trail of crumbs led him into the bedroom. She had kicked off her shoes and was lying flat on her stomach, sprawled across the gold bedspread like a wild black bird, reading. She didn't look up when he went in, lost to the world in the book on Pagan that he had picked up in the Charing Cross Road the day he left London. 9 "Interesting?" he asked, sitting down on the chair nearest the bed, and she looked up startled. "Oh Jesus, yes, it's brilliant. The photos are superb, I've never seen anything like them, and the text is wonderful. Listen to this." She flipped back a few pages and began to read. "Honour to Him, the Holy, the Blessed, the Lord Buddha Here begins the wonderful history of Anawratha and Kyanzittha: thus it is told in the Great Royal Chronicle which was written in the Sacred Chamber facing the Palace of Glass in the reign of King Bagyidaw, Master of the mines of gold, silver, rubies, amber and all gems, Lord of the sacred king of the white elephants, Prince of the Universe and Great Captain of the Law. Don't you just love the way it rolls off your tongue. Lord of the sacred king of the white elephants.... Who are all these people?" "They were mediaeval kings of Burma. Anawratha founded the First Burmese Empire in Pagan at about the time William the Conqueror was invading England, and Kyanzittha ruled the empire a little later. Between them, they built a fair amount of the temples you see in the photographs there." "You mean this is a Burmese equivalent of the Domesday Book?" "No, because it wasn't written until 1829. King Bagyidaw, who ordered it to be written, reigned in the first part of the nineteenth century." "Mm. And where is Pagan? What is it?" "It's a city in Upper Burma. It was the capital of the empire until the thirteenth century, and an important religious site. There used to be something like thirteen thousand temples at Pagan, and there are just over two thousand still standing today." "It looks amazing," she said, turning back to the book again. "Maybe I should get a decent job and save up some money to go and see for myself. Anyway." She closed the book and pushed herself into a sitting position. "You probably have better things to do than chat about temples all night." The animation disappeared, her faced closed down into its earlier sullenness and she gave him a perfunctory smile. "I meant to be all ready and waiting when you got off the phone, but I got sidetracked." Her hands went to the knot at her waist which apparently held the whole mysterious structure of her clothes in place. Paul said, "There's no hurry. Would you really go all the way to Burma just to see Pagan?" "Why not? It's about time I did something interesting with my life." "What have you been doing with it up to now?" "Testing the waters," she said gravely. "If you're going to be doing something for the rest of your life, you have to choose carefully. I think I've narrowed the field down to four possible careers. Waitress, house-cleaner, grape-picker and typist. Now I just have to make the final decision." "But you speak French," Paul objected. "So I can clean houses in two languages." He looked at her in bafflement. "I don't understand. You're intelligent, educated, you can get a better job than that." "I'm handicapped," she said. "I have what they call an attitude problem. I do not deliver cups of coffee to managing directors engaged in serious study of the sports news with the appropriate degree of respect. When customers shout at me, I shout right back. I think in the end I'm going to have to weed out anything that involves offices or restaurants. Or shops. Houses are better, except that they have owners. Best of all are grapes. They don't talk at all, and they only last about a month, which means one has time to catch up on one's reading during the other eleven months of the year."10 "It's going to take you a long while to get to Pagan," said Paul dryly. "Yes," she agreed. Her gaze wandered absently to the cover of the book. "Never mind. Maybe I'll marry a rich husband like in the fairy stories. Some day my prince will come." "And whisk you off to Burma?" "Right." She yawned suddenly. "Oh Jesus, I'm sorry. Look, are we going to do this or not?" "No," said Paul, listening to his own decisive tone with some surprise. "I've got another idea." She looked at him warily. "What kind of idea?" "I'm leaving for Burma at the end of this week. I'll be there for about a fortnight. The girl who was supposed to go with me has dropped out. Why don't you come instead?" A smile of pure glee crept over her face: the smile of a child being offered the inaccessible. The moon itself, no less. The first time he had seen that smile, he had been fifteen or sixteen. His first Christmas back in England. Caroline was three and they had decided she was old enough for her first tricycle. "Bicycle for Caroline" she had crowed triumphantly, and that smile of joy had burst out and lit up her whole face. The smile faded and Claudia looked at him blankly. "How can I? I've got no money." "I'm sorry, I didn't make myself clear. I'm inviting you to come with me as my guest. All expenses paid. Plus I would also pay you a ... a salary for each day of your time." "I don't believe it," she said slowly. "Do you really mean that?" "Yes I do. " She stared at him with a mixture of perplexity and suspicion. "Why?" "I don't enjoy travelling alone," said Paul blandly. "I see. So how much are you going to pay for the pleasure of my company?" "Let's see. You want five hundred a night, right? But there are the days too. So let's say a thousand francs per twenty-four-hour period starting tonight. Today's Monday, I want to leave Thursday. Fifteen days maximum in Burma, plus preparation time plus travel time. That makes about nineteen days. How about we round it off at twenty thousand francs?" "Twenty thousand francs? Two thousand pounds? Jesus, I've never had that much money in my life" The smile spread briefly over her face, and disappeared. "Okay, Paul, what's the catch? What do I really have to do to earn two thousand pounds?" "Nothing," said Paul. "Just be there. A man travelling on his own in Burma is too conspicuous. Tourists travel in pairs. Especially at my age. If I were twenty years younger, I could get away with it, but not any more. I need someone to pose as my wife." "To pose as your wife? Ah. So you're not going to Burma just to look at the temples then?" "Not exclusively." "What else are you going to do?" "That's the problem, Claudia. I can't tell you that. I realize that you may not be able to accept this, and that you may decide to turn me down because of it. I'm not going to answer any questions about who I am, why I'm going to Burma, what I'm doing11 there. All I'm going to tell you is that you won't be in danger, and I won't ask you to do anything illegal." Claudia's eyes narrowed. "You're a drug dealer, aren't you? Burma's one of the countries in the Golden Triangle, isn't it? Sorry, Paul, it's not on." She slid to the edge of the bed, and began groping round for her shoes. "Not even for two thousand pounds and a trip to Pagan. Hard drugs aren't my scene. I've known too many people who got hooked. I've seen what it does to them." Paul put out his hand and stopped her. "I give you my word I'm not a narcotics dealer." "What are you then?" He shrugged and remained silent. After a moment, Claudia said, "Why did your friend drop out?" "The company where her fiancé works is undergoing restructuring. He's worried about his job, he's got chest pains and insomnia and a rash on his arms, and she thinks she should be there to hold his hand. The restructuring has been going on for weeks, and so have the symptoms, but she only decided two days ago that she wasn't going to come. Obviously it doesn't leave me much time to find someone else, or I wouldn't be making this proposal to a complete stranger." Claudia looked hard at him and then away again. She pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her head in her arms. The sensible thing would be to stand up, put on her cloak and bid this lunatic a polite goodnight. But it was cold out there, and besides she was seriously tempted to stay. "Is it warm in Burma?" she demanded, without raising her head. "Yes. Right now is the best time of year for travelling in that part of the world. The rains are finished and the hot season hasn't started yet." "What's the political deal? Wasn't there a big uprising a few years back?" "Yes, in 1988, but the country is quiet now. If there was any danger of unrest, they wouldn't be allowing tourists in." Warm and repressive, then. Just like the rest of the Third World. Useless to query the morality of tourists spending their money to boost repressive economies: tourism was clearly not the point of the exercise. She pulled her arms tighter round her knees. So what was there to lose? Not a great deal, Claudia, let's face it. You're twenty-three years old, you have no money, no job, no profession, no qualifications. You're going nowhere, you have nowhere to go. So why not sign up for a trip to Pagan? It's the only way you'll get there, or anywhere else for that matter. The man's offering you a destination. Go for it. She lifted her head and examined Paul again. He returned her stare impassively. There was something intimidating about him, but that on the whole reassured her. None of that smooth Mediterranean charm, skin-deep and unreliable. As far as it went, she was pretty sure he was making her a straight offer. He wasn't going to cut her up into little pieces and he wasn't going to sell her to some Burmese warlord to rejuvenate the harem. He'd have come up with a more plausible story if he had something like that in mind. All the same, she announced flatly, "I should tell you that my father is a regional director for Alitalia, and his wife is connected to the Agnelli family. My mother is secretary to a British Member of Parliament." "Meaning," said Paul dryly, "that if my Burmese friends and I are planning to feed you to the crocodiles in the Irrawaddy river after our two weeks of orgies, we'll have the governments of two nations to answer to?" Claudia reddened. 12 "Then you'd certainly better inform all of them exactly where you're going and when you expect to return. Meanwhile, I'm afraid I have to check on your bona fides as well. Would you roll up your sleeves, please?" Silently Claudia did so. He inspected her arms without touching them. "Thank you. Excuse me a minute." He got up and left the room. Claudia rolled her sleeves back down. No, not a drug dealer. He reappeared with a pad and pencil. "Now. I'd like you to tell me exactly what you've been doing since last summer." "She left Italy in August and hitched a lift into France. Worked in a hamburger joint in Nice for two days. Moved on to a bar in St. Raphael. Met someone who was driving to Bordeaux, decided to go along and get a job picking grapes. That lasted till mid- October. Got a lift to Paris and moved in with the friend of someone's friend who has a chambre de bonne near République. Last week the guy threw her out. She has no job, nowhere to live, no money." "Really? And you picked her up in that bar you've been hanging out in? What a man." "Actually she picked me up." Paul passed the sheet of paper across the desk. From the outer office, the muffled ringing of the phone filtered faintly through the sound-proofed walls. Adrian glanced swiftly down the page. "Didn't breathe a word of this on the phone last night, you devious bastard." "That was before I had sounded her out." A buzzer sounded on the desk. Adrian flicked the intercom switch. "Yes, Mary? No, not now. Tell him half an hour." He turned back to Paul. "She sounds like a pretty desperate case to me." "She is," said Paul. "That's just the point. It makes her the perfect travelling companion for a trip like this." As soon as he said it, he could have bitten off his tongue. "Is that right?" said Adrian innocently. "So what kind of trip is this then, Philip?" "I told you, a little unfinished business." The less Adrian knew, the better it would be for him later on. "And my name's Paul, remember?" "If you say so. Got everything written down here, have you? Names, dates, addresses. Fine, I'll run a check on her." "One other thing. She's going to need a passport. Could you sort something out for me by tomorrow? Brand new, no visas, no dog-ears. London issuing number. Here's the information you'll need." He passed over another sheet of paper. "Let's see. Claudia Jane Miller. Date of birth, place of birth. No visible distinguishing marks, no children. Got a photo, have you? Thanks. Very nice, yes, can see why you Wait, that's odd, could swear I've seen her somewhere before. My God, it's Caroline At least, that is, awfully sorry, what I meant to say was" Paul cut brusquely through his apologies. "That's right. They could be twins. When I saw her in that bar last night I thought I was dreaming." "That's an amazing resemblance. I would never have thought... And you want her to pose as your wife?" "Why not?" "Isn't that going to be a trifle ... ah ... awkward?" "For God's sake, I'm not going to go to bed with her"13 "Of course not," said Adrian, genuinely shocked. "That's not what I meant at all. What I meant was, having a Caroline lookalike around twenty-four hours a day are you sure you'll be able to cope with it?" "It'll take a bit of getting used to," Paul admitted. "Well I suppose you know what you're doing. When do you plan to leave, by the way? We might need the safe flat at the end of the week." "We'll fly out on Thursday, stop over for a day in Bangkok to get our visas, and aim to reach Rangoon on Saturday afternoon." "Bangkok." Adrian's eyes lit up nostalgically. "I still miss Thailand, you know. So does Jill. One of our best postings. Where do you plan to go from Rangoon, then?" "Oh just the usual places, " said Paul vaguely. "You've been to Burma, haven't you?" "Absolutely. Jill and I went to check out the Golden Triangle, see what we could pick up cut rate." He laughed merrily, but he was watching Paul like a hawk. "Well then, you know what it's like." Deliberately avoiding his gaze, Paul got to his feet and pretended to inspect the view over the Embassy garden. If Adrian had got the idea that he was planning to slip off the tourist circuit into the rebel-held areas, so much the better. "I'll drop in tomorrow afternoon to collect the passport. And the clothes too, if you're sure Jill won't mind." "Of course not, she'll be delighted. Right, I'll expect you tomorrow. What are you going to be doing in the meantime?" "Briefing her," said Paul. "We've got a lot of ground to cover." Not a monk, but a spy. Holed up in a safe house in Paris, preparing a covert mission to Burma, recruiting low-level agents in bars to serve as cover. It all fitted so well, she couldn't think why she hadn't thought of it earlier. Of course, things had been moving so fast last night she hadn't had time to think. After he had finished writing down her long list of recent employers, he had worked out a biography for her forthcoming new passport, taken a photograph with some fancy camera he dug out of the study, made a list of vaccinations she was going to need, and noted down the details of her bank account. One half of her money was to be paid on the day they left Paris, the rest on the day they returned. By the time all that had been settled, it was three o'clock in the morning, she was in bed on her own in the room across the corridor from his, and the only thing she could think of was sleep. So here she was, seven hours later, still tucked up in bed, alone and so far untouched, about to embark for two weeks in another life: the life of Paul's fictitious wife. What the real one was going to be doing during all this time was anybody's guess. He was already wearing a wedding ring, real gold by the look of it, not something he had picked up in Woolworths for the occasion, but in light of his 'no questions' stipulation she wasn't going to be able to ask. Still, it wasn't her problem, was it? Her problem was that she had apparently gone completely crazy. Pick up a man in a bar, go home with him, get offered a free trip to Burma, £2000 for the fortnight, on condition that you travel under a false name, on a false passport, and ask no questions about who he is and why he wants to spend a fortnight in Burma. She pulled the covers up to her chin and laughed softly to herself. La nuit porte conseil, as the French would say, but even with seven hours of good advice behind her, she hadn't changed her mind. What's more, she was looking forward to it. The money wasn't all14 that good when you thought about the risks involved, but who cared? Even if they shot her as a spy, it would be more distinguished than dying of hunger in the gutter. Which brought her to the question of who Paul was spying for, and what he was looking for in Burma. The obvious candidate for the role of employer was the SIS, except that she was pretty sure he wasn't English. The language might be native, but the accent and intonation were not. At first she had thought he might be American, then she had considered South African. Towards the end of the evening, it had occurred to her that he could be an Englishman who had spent most of his life abroad. Never mind, she would figure it out in the end. The same with his non-drug-related business in Burma. If she was supposed to be his wife, he would have to haul her round with him most of the time. All she had to do was keep her eyes and ears open. What was there in Burma to spy on? Nuclear installations? Heroin fields? God knows. But she had two whole weeks to find out. The restaurant where they went for dinner had red-checked tablecloths and traditional bistro food. Boeuf bourguignon, blanquette de veau, lapin à la moutarde. The patronne greeted Paul warmly and Claudia a lot more coolly. Some kind of territorial infringement was being committed. "Do you come here a lot, Paul?" He had seated himself with his back to the wall, she noticed with satisfaction, just like in the spy novels. "Nearly every night, actually. Someone recommended it." "You're a creature of habit, aren't you? Same restaurant every night, same bar every night. Are we going there later too?" They had spent nearly twenty-four hours in each other's company, but it was the first time she had managed to make him smile. "I think maybe we'll give it a miss. Unless you want to show off your new shoes?" "No, no." Claudia glanced resentfully at the package on the seat beside her. "I'm saving them for the jungle. It wouldn't do to wear them out beforehand." The package contained one pair of brand-new Reeboks. White, for God's sake. She didn't need them, she had protested, her Doc Martens were good enough for anything, including the jungle, but he had been adamant. When in Burma, do as the Burmese do. The Burmese wear Reeboks? she had said sceptically. No, they wear flip-flops, he had said, undeterred. You'll need those too, but we can pick them up in Rangoon. They ordered boeuf bourguigon and a carafe of red wine from the dour-faced patronne, who defrosted slightly on hearing Claudia's fluent French. The wine arrived almost immediately: no doubt they looked as though they needed it. Paul was looking distinctly haggard and Claudia didn't feel too good herself. Tetanus and typhoid and polio and a few other things were chasing each other round under her skin and making her arm ache. The cold was making her teeth ache. Rushing round vaccination centres, the Gare du Nord and the grands magasins all afternoon had made her feet ache. Trying to remember the details of her new life and that of her alleged new husband was making her head ache. She sipped her wine and looked covertly at Paul across the table. He really did look tired. And abstracted too. A million miles away. 15 "They do have jungle in Burma, I hope?" she said brightly, desperate for something to say, to bring him back from the graveside of his sister, or wherever else he was. "Oh yes, lots of it." He gave her a polite, acknowledging smile, but his eyes were as far away as ever. "Most of the country is jungle, but unfortunately we won't actually be going there. That's where the fighting is, and foreigners aren't allowed to go there." "Fighting? What fighting?" "The civil war." "Oh, right, the civil war. Silly me. So what civil war is this then? The government versus the democrats?" "No, the government versus the minorities. The Karens, the Kachins, the Shans..." "Oh I see," said Claudia crossly. "Now, let me guess. Is this one of those Yugoslavia-type situations where they've all been thirsting to slit each other's throats for the past five centuries? Or are they fighting for some other reason?" "There are certain historic tensions," agreed Paul delicately. "But the main reason is that the minorities want an equal say in the government of the country and the Burmans don't want to give it to them." The boeuf bourguignon arrived and the conversation was interrupted while the patronne fussed around with bread and napkins, knives and forks, salt and pepper, none of which she seemed to consider worth putting on the table ahead of time. When she left them alone, with a cursory "Bon appetit," Paul said, "But you don't have to worry. As I said, we won't be going anywhere near the fighting. Burma isn't dangerous for tourists." "Just for its own nationals?" "You could say that." "How many times have you been to Burma before?" "Me? I've never been to Burma before. How do you find the bourguignon?" "Pretty good. I can see why you come here every night. Though I thought people like you weren't supposed to do things like that," she added nastily. "Things like what?" "I thought you were meant to vary your routines. Leave the house at different times. Go to work by different routes. Never eat in the same place twice. Make it harder to track you down and so on." "I have no idea what you're talking about." "Of course not." "Claudia, I thought we agreed" "That wasn't a question, Paul. Merely an observation. I wouldn't want you to feel obligated to answer me in any way." They finished eating in silence. "Well," said Claudia, wiping her plate with a piece of bread. "That was delicious." Paul had left some of his stew : she wondered if she could offer to finish it up for him, and decided against it. "What's for pudding?" "Pudding?" "Yes please. Dessert. I am entitled to dessert I suppose?" "Of course." "Good. Because that's the main reason I agreed to your little proposition last night. The trouble with being broke is that puddings are the first thing to go." "They're all on the counter over there. Why not go and have a look?"16 "That's okay, I can see from here. The lemon tart looks good. What are you going to have?" "I never eat dessert." "That's all right, it's never too late to start. Deux tartes au citron, s'il vous plaît, Madame." "Mais non, je" Claudia put her finger to her lips. "Sssh. Make the most of it. I bet they don't have lemon tart in Burma." "Of course they don't" "See, you have been there before." Paul stared at her in exasperation. "Are you always like this?" "Quite often, yes. Do I still remind you of your sister?" "No you don't." "Good. It's bad enough knowing there's someone else out there who looks exactly like you, but if she behaves like you too then it's even worse." She stopped and blushed. "Sorry. Put all that in the past tense. You don't have a photograph of her by any chance, do you?" There was a long pause and then his hand went slowly to the inside pocket of his jacket. The patronne arrived with the lemon tart and he let it fall by his side again. She set down the plates and went back to the kitchen. He took a picture out of his wallet and passed it across the table. Claudia studied it in silence and passed it back. "You're right. It's uncanny. How long ago was this picture taken?" "Two and a half years." "And she died...?" "Three months later." "What was her name?" "Caroline." He began to demolish the lemon tart, shovelling it into his mouth as though he was anxious to stop up the holes and prevent any more words escaping. Claudia watched him for a moment or two, and then picked up her spoon. Judging by the way he was reacting he had been keeping it all bottled up for two and a half years. No wonder he behaved as if he was somewhere else half the time. "Tell me about her," she said, when they had finished. He was about to demur, so she added, "It would be better, you know. Save me putting my foot in it more than necessary." A pause while he thought about it. "We're going to be living in each other's pockets for the next two weeks, if I understand correctly. If I don't know where the pitfalls are, it's going to be difficult to avoid them." "Maybe you're right." He sighed and prepared unwillingly to commence his revelations. "Caroline was my half-sister. Twelve years younger than me. She would have been thirty this year. My father was quite old when she was born, and something went wrong at the birth which meant that Helen, his second wife, couldn't have any more children. Since I was living with my own mother at that time, Caroline was to all intents and purposes an only child. They lavished a good deal of affection on her, perhaps too much in fact, they spoiled her to death. They gave her everything she wanted. Luckily, she was very sweet-natured, so it didn't have as bad an effect on her character as it could have, but it left her a bit directionless. She wasn't a very strong17 person, she always needed someone to look after her, tell her what to do, and she was very easily influenced." He stopped. Claudia waited. So what was it about this sweet nonentity that had left such a deep and painful scar in the mind of her much older half-brother? "What happened to her?" He didn't answer. "It was heroin, wasn't it?" she said. His head jerked up sharply. "How did you know?" "Don't look so alarmed. You've asked me twice if I'm on drugs. It's not hard to work out." Paul looked at her with an odd expression in his eyes. "Maybe not." "Definitely not. And you feel guilty because you weren't there to look after her, and send her off for a cure somewhere, and keep her away from the dealers and her junkie friends when she got out." "My God," said Paul. "You know all about it." "I've seen it happen once or twice. Not to anyone I really cared about. Just people I knew. But that was bad enough. I would never take hard drugs, myself, never. I'd be too scared of what it can do to you." "You're not like Caroline at all," said Paul. He sounded faintly surprised by the discovery. "Did you really expect me to be?" "No. Of course not. But the physical resemblance is so strong, it's just... strange that you aren't." He shrugged, and gave her smile which for the first time implied that a human being might be lurking in there somewhere. "Sorry, I guess that sounds ridiculous." "The things that sound ridiculous are usually the best. Why don't you ask that harpy for the bill," she went on, "and let's go home. I think we both need an early night." The monk's hideout was only two streets away. They walked there in silence. When they got inside the flat, Paul double-locked the front door, wished her good night and headed towards his own bedroom. Claudia stood indecisively in the hall. Did he think she was tired and was that why...? Since he was paying her shouldn't she...? "It doesn't have to be an early night in separate beds," she said. Paul stopped dead. He turned round and studied her thoughtfully. Then he sighed and took a couple of steps back towards her. "I think there may have been a slight misunderstanding." "You don't want to sleep with me?" "You saw the photo of Caroline." "I'm sorry, I should have thought." "I'd feel as if I were committing incest." "I just wasn't sure. Last night, you didn't say that" "You're quite right. I should have made it clear from the start." "Yes," said Claudia irritably, "you should." He was too old, too blond, and too serious. He was not her type. But did he have to turn her down quite so categorically? "I assume you don't want to sleep with me any more than I want to sleep with you?" "Of course not," said Claudia, and turned on her heel. "Why ever should I?"18 "Wait," said Paul. "I haven't finished. We're going to be posing as husband and wife. This means there's going to have to be a certain amount of hugging and kissing at certain times. Physical contact," he explained, as if it were the name of a particularly odious disease. "For show, that is. Like actors in front of a camera. Switching on and off as the occasion demands. I suppose I should have spelled all that out too last night. Anyway, I need to know right now if you're going to be able to handle it or not." Handle it? What do you mean, handle it? Can a trainee prostitute and presumed nymphomaniac such as myself survive for two weeks in a totally asexual environment? Is that what you mean? Can I be trusted to refrain from threatening your virtue in private, however much you maul me around in public? "Claudia gave him the biggest, cheeriest smile that rage would allow. "Don't worry, Paul. For £100 a day, I can handle anything." So that was Tuesday. Shoes, vaccinations and sexual guidelines. On Wednesday, they got down to the serious business of constructing their fictitious life together. What Claudia liked best was her new, untarnished past, in which she had failed to drop out of university two weeks before Finals, hadn't even been there, never met bloody Nick, but done a secretarial course after A-levels instead, and got a nice, straight nine-to-five job with the pharmaceutical company where Paul was a marketing manager. He was German, apparently, seconded from the German branch of the company in Frankfurt, special responsibility for shampoos and skin care. They had known each other for three years, gone out together for two, been married three weeks ago at a registry office somewhere, and lived chastely in adjoining rooms ever since. Paul was a remote, humourless, but infinitely painstaking teacher. Ignoring her barbs, taunts and occasional lewd suggestions, he went over the ground until she was not just word perfect, but sure enough of her new persona to improvise as needed. Bit by bit, he moulded her into her new identity. When she forgot things he was patient, when she despaired he was encouraging. He kept her at it when she got bored and demanded a break, he refused to let up even when she knew it forwards and backwards and sideways too. "What did you buy your fiancé, as I was then, for his fortieth birthday?" "Oh come on, Paul, who the hell's going to ask me that?" "What did you buy me? Think." "I took you out for a meal. I couldn't really afford it on my humble secretarial pittance, but forty is a big deal. So I took you to the Indian place in Twickenham, the one not far from the river, that we'd been to once or twice before. And I bought you a present too, nothing too opulent, just a little something to mark the occasion. Let's see, what did I buy you? You're German, so you probably like classical music, right? How about some Brahms? The violin concerto, say." "Not Mozart or Beethoven?" "Mozart's too ordinary. Everyone has Mozart. As for Beethoven, I wouldn't buy him for anyone, simply because I don't like him much myself." "Fair enough." He went back to his notes. "So what about Brahms? Will he do, or not?" "Brahms is one of my favourite composers. He's fine." He looked up and grinned at her for the first time all day. "Well done." "Maybe you can give me a degree in espionage to make up for the one I missed in French."19 Later that night, instead of going straight home from the harpy's red and white checked restaurant, they made a detour down the rue de Miromesnil. Lights shone out of the windows of the art galleries on each side of the street, and their footsteps echoed in the cold. There was no one about. At Claudia's insistence, they were holding hands. The ghost of Caroline was hovering near and she could tell that Paul wasn't too happy with this arrangement, but he could hardly argue with her contention that their cover required it, though he did argue, and strenuously, with her use of the word "cover." "I don't know what on earth you're imagining, but this isn't some kind of espionage mission we're engaged in. We're tourists, Claudia, nothing more. Please stop using that word or you'll find it slipping off your tongue in front of some Burmese official, and then we'll have some serious explaining to do." "I'm sorry, Paul. I don't know where that word came from." She smiled at him demurely. "As you said, it just slipped off my tongue. You know, it's really cold tonight. If we've only been married three weeks, don't you think you might have your arm round me at this point." "You should wear more clothes," said Paul, which was unfair because she was wearing practically everything she possessed, and he knew it. It wasn't her fault if she only had the summer clothes she had taken to Italy last August, plus the cloak she had picked up for fifty francs at the flea market. When she was living with Olivier she had worn his sweaters, but he had made her leave them behind when he threw her out. Even wearing a skirt over leggings with three T-shirts wasn't enough to keep warm in this weather. She had evaluated Paul's sweaters, but rejected them on grounds of colour. One was light blue and the other was royal blue. Not quite her style. He had made her wear the light blue one to have her photo taken, announcing that black was not a suitable colour for her new persona, but she had decided to waive her claims on it thereafter. They stopped in front of one of the art galleries that lined the street, as they had done several times already, and Claudia studied the painting in the window resignedly. Daisies and sunshades and long floating dresses, some kind of pseudo-Renoir picnic. She had the feeling that Paul's mind was no more on art than hers was. Was this some kind of manoeuvre designed to reinforce their allegedly non-existent cover? As long as she wasn't going to be given a crash course in art history too. With all the facts about Burma he had been stuffing into her, she was beginning to feel like a walking history book. First the poor sods had been colonized by the British, adding sub-jewels to the crown, and then invaded by the Japanese, who were keen to get their hands on the Burma Road. In 1948, Independence gave everyone the chance to leap at each other's throats with no foreigners to get in the way. Civil war in the hinterland, inter-party squabbling in Rangoon, culminating in 1962 in the usual post-colonial lurch into totalitarianism. A general called Ne Win staged a military coup and re-directed the country on to what he called the Burmese Way to Socialism, an eccentric fusion of Buddhism and Marxism, with occasional input from the general's numerologist. In 1987 the numerologist recommended a demonetisation that wiped out most of the country's savings and led to a mass revolt against Marxist-Buddhist economic theory. Thousands of people were killed, Ne Win stepped down, and an entity called the State Law and Order Restoration Council took his place. Ne Win went on pulling the strings from behind the scenes. It was not known what happened to the numerologist. 20 Claudia would have preferred to hear more about Anawrahta and Kyanzittha, but it seemed the founding fathers were not essential to an understanding of present-day Burma. The new military government, which Paul referred to by the Tolkienesque acronym of SLORC, had placed the leader of the opposition under house arrest, declined to hand over power to the democratic winners of free elections, imprisoned hundreds of dissidents, and started to sell off the country's teak forests in an attempt to make ends meet. If nothing else, Burma sounded like an exciting place to go. Paul tugged at her hand and they walked slowly onwards. After only a few steps, he stopped again. "Look," he said, and something in his voice told her that they had finally come to the reason for their little evening constitutional. Hanging in the window was a tapestry worked on black velvet. Two figures fighting under a vast, spangled expanse of sky. One with his sword upraised ready to strike a final blow, the other on the ground, arm curved above his head, imploring mercy. The whole tapestry gleamed and shimmered with gold and silver thread, beads, spangles. The two figures seemed to leap out of the tapestry, and Claudia realized that they were padded with something to make them stand out. The colour and style told her immediately that it was of Eastern origin. She looked at the name of the gallery embossed in gold letters on the glass door. Galérie Rajasthan. Paris, Londres, New York. "It's beautiful. Is it Indian?" "No, it's Burmese." He pointed to a label under the tapestry which she had failed to notice. Claudia leant forward and read, Chronique du Palais de Cristal des Rois de Birmanie. The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma. "Oh. It's the same as that book you have." "That's right. This is one of a series of tapestries based on the Glass Palace Chronicle. It was done by an artist called Min Saw. You haven't heard of him? He's quite famous these days. Well, it doesn't matter. This shows King Anawrahta duelling with his brother Sokkate. He killed his brother, took the throne in his place, and then started building pagodas to salve his conscience. It's to him that we owe Pagan." Claudia looked at him curiously. He was standing there, oblivious to the cold, hardly aware of her presence at his side, gaze intent on the tapestry. Clearly, there was some connection with their forthcoming trip. She waited expectantly for him to tell her what it was, but he said nothing, merely turned away with a little sigh and said, "Let's go home." "Good idea. I'm freezing. Darling," she added mischievously. "What?" "Darling. All the newly-weds I've ever known called each other darling." No answer. "And I think you should kiss me from time to time too." "In the street?" The tone was detached, not even disapproving. How did one break through his mental armour, how did one get in there and find the place he lived? "Why ever not? People do in these liberated days, haven't you noticed?" "Not in Burma. The Burmese frown on public displays of affection." "They can't be much fun then," she retorted and dropped his hand crossly. Her attempts to wean him from his sister's ghost were getting nowhere; she might as well give up. Maybe she had been wrong about him. Maybe he was a spy and a monk.

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