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.Poncy bugger, he thought, self-critically, conscious of the effort to impress.There hadn’t been many times when he’d bothered.Marks and Spencer, 1959, he supposed.Trainee manager, £3 a week, subsidized canteen, two weeks’ holiday a year and a guaranteed pension: his mother had a thing about pensions, just like she had about wearing clean underpants every day in case he was ever knocked down in the street.And the wedding, to Edith.Except that he hadn’t managed it then.He’d meant to, like he’d meant all the promises he’d made to her.Just slipped his mind, in the pub.So he’d arrived at the registry office with the jacket of the new suit still damp from sponging away the spilled vindaloo of the previous night’s stag party curry, a hangover that would have felled a bear, and had had to excuse himself halfway through the register signing to throw up in the vestry lavatory.Hadn’t done that successfully either, so he’d reappeared with fresh sponge marks on the suit.Edith hadn’t been lucky from the very beginning.Charlie took the new suede brush and carried into the kitchen the Hush Puppies that age had moulded into some sort of comfort for his feet, buffing hard to bring up a better nap.He’d worn new shoes for the job interview and the wedding, but he couldn’t now.Charlie Muffin had problem feet.Some days were worse than others.Today was bad.They were not misshapen or deformed or calloused: they just ached most of the time.He’d placed them – cautiously- into the hands of chiropodists and specialists who recommended supports, arches, built-up heels, shaved-away soles, and finished up where he’d started, with aching feet.Charlie thought he should have received a pension.They were awarded for hernias and other army disabilities.And he was bloody sure that’s what he had – a provable disability from stamping around national service parade grounds in boots weighing a ton and over which they’d made him crouch, day after day, burning out the toecap lumps with a hot spoon and then polishing and spitting and polishing and spitting, to get a shine.It was to escape from the parade ground that he’d sat the examination for the intelligence corps, competing with the Sandhurst failures who gargled their words and had MG sports cars to take advantage of the weekend passes they always seemed able to get.And beaten the bloody lot, with a 98 per cent pass mark, straight into a warm office and a comfortable chair.Which was all, initially, he’d considered it – a place to rest his feet and escape the stupidity of scrubbing coal bunkers with toothbrushes and soaping the inside of his trouser creases to keep them in shape for colonel’s inspection.It had come as a surprise to find that he liked it.And was good at it.Where two other investigations had failed, he’d managed the arrest in Vienna of a cipher clerk dealing directly with the Russians and been promoted sergeant, but even then it hadn’t occurred to him that it might become permanent.After demob there was still Marks and Spencer and the guarantee of pension rights.Three months before demob he’d been told, without explanation, to present himself to Whitehall, so he’d polished the boots and soaped the creases and gone anticipating some escort duty.And instead found himself in a high-vaulted, cavernous room confronting a committee of men who moved and spoke quietly, because things echoed and they seemed frightened of the noise disturbing the people next door.They’d known everything about him.Not just what he’d done in the army, which would have been easy enough from records, but before.They had the headmaster’s reference and the Marks and Spencer personnel file; they actually knew what his mother had earned, charring, to keep him at grammar school in Manchester.He supposed they knew about the other thing too, the blank space on the birth certificate where his father’s name should have been recorded.Cheeky buggers.He’d thought so at the time but said nothing.What they were offering appealed more than being a trainee manager and the pension terms had been better, so his mother was happy enough.Life would have been a damned sight easier if he’d remained a disciple of St Michael, thought Charlie, going into the bathroom.Charlie shaved delicately, to avoid cutting himself, not wanting to meet Rupert Willoughby with tiny flags of toilet paper all over his face.He wetted his hair to keep it in place, but used too much water and knew that when it dried it would stick up.It usually did, so there wasn’t much he could do about it.Ready long before it was time to leave, he surveyed the completed impression, standing sideways and holding in his breath and stomach to hide the bulge.Dissatisfied, he turned full frontal, squaring his shoulders and stiffening his neck, as he had on the long-ago parade grounds.‘Christ!’ he said.Willoughby’s office was close to the main Lloyds building in Lime Street.It was the sort of place that never changed.There was the same rickety, stubborn lift, models of boats in glass cases, scrolls of honour commemorating past chairmen and employees who had died in both wars, lots of dark wood everywhere and the smell of polish.Rich and enduring, thought Charlie; a million miles from a Battersea tenement where the kids thought aerosol sprays had been invented to write ‘Fuck’ on the walls.If they had to do it at all, it was better than ‘Nigger’, he supposed.Charlie made his way along the familiar corridors to the receptionist, who smiled and said he was expected.Charlie tightened his stomach, secured the buttons of his crisply cleaned suit and pressed his hands over the straying hair; it was sticking up, like he’d feared it would.‘Good to see you again, Charlie,’ said Willoughby.The underwriter, who was a tall man, and uncomfortable because of it, unfolded rather than stood from behind his desk.The office was fittingly traditional.There was heavy panelling, again the pungent smell of polish, the model of a paddle steamer in a case and an almost soundless tape machine, spewing a tiny stream of information neatly into a special container.‘Good to see you too,’ said Charlie.Guessing the reason for the frown that momentarily crossed the other man’s face, Charlie added, ‘Had a bad night.’Willoughby thought it looked as if there had been a lot more than one [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]