Raymond Ess is going to kill me.
This is the thought I can’t stop thinking. One way and another I’ve been thinking it for years, though I used to mean something like Raymond Ess is going to be annoyed with me or Raymond Ess is asking too much of me. I don’t mean either of those things now. I just mean he’s going to kill me.
One night soon, when he finds out what I’ve done, Raymond Ess is going to slip quietly into my room and murder me in my bed. He’s going to stab me through the sheets with a kitchen knife, crush my throat with his speckled hands, and he’s not going to do it because he’s mad, though he is (stark, staring); he’s going to do it because it’s what I deserve. Because it’s the only punishment that fits the crime.
When I said all this to Alice, one night last week, she did her best not to laugh. ‘You don’t mean that. You’re being fantastic, you’re being interesting…’
‘I’m not being fantastic. I’m not being interesting.’
She gave me a complicated look – amused, pitying, maybe just starting to be worried. ‘Then why are you going on this trip with him?’
‘Because there’s nothing else I can do.’
On the hotel roof terrace Raymond Ess and I are working through breakfast. We’ve been in the country for eight hours, at least five of which I’ve spent asleep. I don’t know, and would fear to guess, how long Ess has spent asleep. It’s possible he hasn’t slept at all.
He sits eagerly hunched over the mosaic of paper he’s spread across the entire table surface, relegating our cups and plates to the free chairs on either side of us. His hands are pressed together between his knees. He talks quickly, laughs often, often for no reason I can make out. He is in giddy high spirits; he seems to be trembling with excitement.
The roof terrace with its swept tile and faux-imperial architecture – columns, pillars, Greek nymphs, Roman busts – isn’t really suitable for this meeting.The sun is so bright, insanely flashing; we can barely see what we’re doing. Ess spends long moments with his nose in his notes, struggling to extract a word or a number from the field of dazzle the light makes of any page. I’ve had similar difficulties with my tablet; held at the wrong angle, the screen is an oblong of blinding fire. I tried shading it under the table, but the table is a latticework of metal, all chinks, and the pattern it threw onto the screen was ornate but not legible.The best I’ve come up with is to sit with my knees high, feet on the seat of my chair, the little computer steeply balanced in my lap, one hand round the upper edge of the screen, the other scrolling, dabbing at the virtual touchpad.
I would like to suggest we find somewhere else to hold our meeting. But Ess seems happy, more than happy, where we are.
Every few minutes he pauses. He shuts his eyes, tips his head back and sits silently smiling. At first I assume he’s thinking, strategising.Then I realise he’s just sunbathing.
Finally the eyes flip open and he says,‘Right.Where were we?’
And we turn back to our notes, our proposals, our plans.
We are, after all, here on business.
Raymond Ess is fifty-six, a senior executive, an important man. I’m twenty-eight, his personal assistant, not important at all. We work for Resolute Aviation and we’ve come to India to buy an antigravity machine.
‘You’re going to have a brilliant time. A brilliant and a – you know – hugely successful time.’
This was Alice, two days ago, before I left for the airport.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ I said.‘I’m pumped for this. Did you ever see anyone so pumped?’ Probably I was trying to put her mind at rest.
‘Mmn. And you’re not thinking any more about that silly stuff, are you? About Ess or anyone wanting to kill you, or…?’
She wasn’t fooled. Alice isn’t really foolable, or not by me she isn’t. ‘It’s not healthy, carrying all that round with you, all that whatever it is. I wish you’d told me…’
‘I did tell you.’
‘And I’m not carrying it round with me. I’m not carrying anything round with me.’ I held up my empty hands to illustrate the point, and she slapped them, one after the other, in the manner of a tribal greeting, or a tribal rebuke.
‘Ess would never hurt you. He’s a good guy, he’ll understand. He’ll see you didn’t have a choice.’ Her confidence, her authority. Alice has met Ess once.
And anyway, it’s not true. I did have a choice. I could have stood up for him, stood by him. Instead I did what I did and I’m doing what I’m doing. What I said to Alice, though, was,‘You’re right.’
She looked at me for a long time then. Pressed her forehead, hard, into mine, as if trying to see inside my eyes. Inside hers, golden cities, hidden worlds.
Then she pulled away from me, gave a brittle sniff and said,‘Change of plan.You’re not going.’
‘Nope. It’s too weird.You’re not going. I’m not letting you go.’
But she did let me go, in the end.
‘Enough,’ Ess says now, leaning back in his chair and stretching his arms above his head. ‘If that doesn’t satisfy them, I don’t know what will.’
By them he means Resolute’s board of trustees. Actually he means Martin Cantor, the board’s thirty-six-year-old chair, and his nemesis.
‘It’s good,’ I say, looking down at my notes. ‘There’s the same issue with some of the uh, fine detail, but there’s nothing…’
I trail off. Ess isn’t listening. He’s frowning, thinking – a small, neat, dapper man; tanned and handsome, in a game-show-host sort of way, with dark, silver-wired, side-parted hair, fondly crinkling blue eyes and beaming, too-good teeth. Today he’s wearing a white linen suit, a yellow silk shirt open at the throat, and incongruous scarlet Italian leather shoes.
On the other side of the table I’m tall, sprawling, thinning, jug-eared and odd-eyed (Alice says my eyes are ‘fizzy’; I have no idea what she means by this, but I’m assured she means it nicely), in a T-shirt, shorts and trainers.We’re here on Business but we’re dressed for Pleasure.This is part of Ess’s plan.
‘Right,’ he says, sitting forward.‘I’ll give Asha another go.’
Asha Jarwal: our guide out of the city, into the countryside.
Ess employed her on his previous visit to India, at the end of last year. He talks about her constantly, keeps telling me she and I are going to be ‘great mates’.
‘Oh,’ I say,‘have you already tried her?’
He is silent. He takes out his phone, brings it close to his face and starts pressing buttons, peering intently at the screen. It’s a weird, jaggy moment. I might not have spoken. I might not be here. We used to get moments like these a lot, though recently he’s been better. Then, still peering at his phone, he says, ‘I had to keep myself occupied somehow, while Goldilocks was getting her beauty sleep.’
A dig. I was half an hour late for breakfast. Relief. ‘Goldilocks did need her beauty sleep,’ I agree.
‘You don’t mind if I…?’ He points to a corner of the terrace, I make shooing gestures, and Ess climbs to his feet and goes to stand in the corner with his phone clamped to his face. After a while his posture changes and he starts talking to someone.
And I look down again at my notes – my crazy estimates, my lunatic sums.
In fact the only calculation that matters is the one that says Resolute is finished.That says the company is done for and we’re all going to lose our jobs.
Early last year Martin Cantor and the board announced their intention to dissolve Resolute Aviation. We all pretty much got it.We howled, we ground our teeth and rent our garments, but we got it.The company had been in trouble for years.
The only holdout was Ess. Two decades earlier he and three friends had founded Resolute, and while his co-founders had long ago gone on to better things (consultancy work, retirement), Ess had held firm. And firm he held still. Soon he was clashing with the board, privately – then, less so. Ugly scenes in the boardroom, then in the corridors, the car park.
In July things came to a head. Ess became unwell. It was suggested, fairly gently, that he should take some time off. And that’s what he did. He packed a suitcase, boarded a plane, and spent six months travelling round India.
Six weeks ago he came back into work. He seemed fit, healthy, a man transfigured. He was loud with the subcontinent’s praises. And that wasn’t all.
On his travels, he said, he’d discovered the solution to all our problems. He’d met a man, a genius, a recluse of the Indian wilds who had invented an antigravity machine. He was going to return to India and buy this machine. In this way, Ess said, he was going to save Resolute, save our jobs, save us all.
On the roof terrace Ess is still standing in his corner, still speaking into his phone. It strikes me that he could talk for another ten minutes or another hour, and on an impulse I close my tablet, stand, and walk a few paces to the roof ’s nearest edge.
From here, nine floors above street level, the city is a vast and gnashing wheel, dusty, speed-lined, turning so quickly in the morning sun its details are hard to make out. Here, a futuristic office complex, all intangible tapering. There, a ramshackle tenement block, crazily corseted with strings of bright laundry. The rest is a blur.
I turn to face the bay with its ranks of covered boats waiting to ferry out tourists on to the water. I’m just beginning to comprehend it, the immense level of the Arabian Sea, when Ess strides up beside me.
‘Magnificent, isn’t it?’ he says.
‘It is.’ I glance at him, and I realise he doesn’t mean the view of the city, or even the view of the sea, but the view of the sky. With a broad, shallow smile, he’s gazing up into the sun-flashed blue. And I know what he’s seeing: this self-same sky awash with transit and industry, with gliding tankers, floating liners, pleasure ships and cargo craft of every variety, and swarming everywhere round everything countless thousands of human dots, commuters, caterers, deliverers, traders, all the workers of the world in graceful (affordable, sustainable) flight... I know he’s seeing this, because Ess’s recent conversation tells me he’s seeing this sort of thing most of the time.What’s funny is, over the last few weeks I’ve started seeing it too. Airborne crowds, ascended multitudes...
‘Right.’ Ess detaches his gaze from the sky and turns to me.The way he does this causes me to notice the faint scar on his cheek, crosshatched lines, like graph paper, catching the sun along their cellophane slits. A strange scar: sometimes there, sometimes not. As he moves his head almost imperceptibly in the bright air, it blinks on, blinks off. ‘Fair news on the Asha front, I’m glad to say. Just now she’s finishing up her current job and looking to join us this evening. All being well, she’ll meet us for dinner here at the hotel.Which should mean a late briefing then an early start in the morning.Which isn’t bad. Better than I was expecting, to be honest.’
‘Okay,’ I say. But the thought that early tomorrow morning a woman I’ve not yet met is going to lead us into the countryside, into the Indian wilds, is alarming, terrifying.
But then (this is to calm myself) I remember I have fairly good reason to suspect that the woman doesn’t exist – that Asha Jarwal isn’t a real person, that there is no guide and no one is coming to lead us into the Indian wilds, or anywhere.
Still smiling, he dips his head and urges it forward – an Ess gesture indicating a confidential disclosure. ‘Sounds like she’s up against it with this one. Great mob of Spanish clergymen wringing their hands over the slums. Rolling their eyes to the heavens, beating their breasts. Asha says they keep wailing at her, “How can this be?” And she tells them, “A slum is a slum. Life is hard.” I can just imagine her saying that. “Life is hard.” Not much nonsense in Asha.’ He chuckles. It’s the sort of chuckle that makes people who don’t know what he does for a living think Ess must be an entertainer, a late-night DJ, a croon-the-hits club singer. Then he straightens, claps his hands together. ‘So, Mr Strauss, it rather looks like we’ve a day to kill. What say you to heading out?’
‘Heading out… of the hotel?’
‘It’s a bold thought, I know. Come on. We’ll explore, we’ll shop. It’ll be good for you. For your jetlag, or whatever’s wrong with you.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’
‘Ooh. That’s what they all say.’ He slaps me on the shoulder then crosses back to the table to pack up his notes, the great mosaic of his pads and folders and binders. I stand watching him for a while, then privately purse my lips and step forward to help.
My jetlag. Or whatever’s wrong with me.
We flew Bristol to Doha, Doha to Mumbai. On the second flight, the shorter one, Ess mostly slept, which was a relief, because on the first flight (the longer one) he’d talked the whole way. For a while I kept an eye out for warning signs – there are lots of them, and I know them all well – but I didn’t see any and after an hour or so felt I could safely tune out.
The most reliable of his signs was the nose-twitch. He’d always had it, a brisk shrug or bob passing from the tip of his nose to the point of his chin, a rabbity realignment of the mask of the face, usually brought on by sustained thought or anxiety, but for years no more than one of those harmless quirks that made Ess Ess. It was only round March or April last year that it stopped being a quirk and started being a sign. First it increased in frequency: he’d be sitting there talking to you, his nose constantly jigging up and down, his top lip sliding continually over his teeth. Then it increased in severity. At his worst he looked as if he were trying to gnaw his own face off, to bite it, to tear it away.
But it was all right. On neither flight did any of his warning signs appear. Also, on neither flight did we travel Business. We travelled Economy.This was another part of Ess’s plan.‘We’ll be coming in under the radar!’ he had said, with satisfaction.‘They won’t even know we’re there!’ In this context, I had only the most general idea who he meant by they. But that was all right too, because I wasn’t thinking about it.
We landed at Mumbai in the middle of the night. As soon as we entered the airport it was clear that something had happened. The Arrivals section was full of people, flight after flight of people, all apparently shouting. I talked to a group of women standing a little way in front of us who explained that the airport had been blocked for hours. When I asked why, they were incredulous. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ one of the women said, with a pitying, piercing note. ‘There’s been another bombing. Bangalore this time.’ It had happened while our flight was in the air. For now, the woman said, there were no other details.
I relayed this information to Ess, who tightened his lips and gave a single bleak nod. After that I didn’t raise the subject of the bombing with him again. I sensed that if I did he would take it as something very close to a personal insult.
From the roof terrace we take the lift down to the ground floor. It’s a slow, bumpy ride, the confined space of the lift resounding with the screech of unseen cables and feeling all the more confined for the presence of a uniformed attendant perched on a stool, a spry, quick, thinly grinning man with whom Ess keeps up a stream of garrulous conversation.When the doors finally smash open, the attendant taps the peak of his cap at us. Ess salutes in return. I raise a hand to my brow, weakly brush my fingers across it, and sidle out of the lift after Ess as quickly as I can go.
In the reception area Ess launches into conversation with the man at the desk, then hands across his papers so the man can lock them into the hotel safe. Presumably this is a measure to ensure they don’t get their hands on his notes. So far Ess hasn’t suggested that my tablet needs to be locked up. Does this mean his notes are indispensible, but mine are not?
As we approach the entrance a turbaned doorman bows and pulls open the door for us. Not looking at the man, swaggering in his glamorous white linen, Ess throws off another salute. I stare at the tiled floor.
At the top of the steps outside, Ess pauses. When he looks at me his face seems full of the noise, the light, the heat, the panting life of the street below.
‘Well then, Mr Strauss,’ he says, ‘are you ready for an adventure?’
Funny: because two weeks ago I was asked the same question by Martin Cantor.
On a Friday afternoon, while Ess was off-site doing who knows what, Cantor invited me to his office. He was friendly, and welcomed me in among the film posters, the games consoles and pinball machines of his executive demesne. I had never been in his office before, though I knew Ess referred to it as the Playpen. It was pretty nice. A change at least from Ess’s office, with its Chinese screens, its Viking maps, its oil burners and incense sticks. I mean Ess’s office was nice too, in its creaky, fragrant way; it just wasn’t so much my thing. In my head – and occasionally to Alice – I referred to it as the Perfume Counter.
‘So Steve! Looking forward to your big adventure?’
‘Oh, absolutely. I’m absolutely looking forward to it.’
‘Great.’ Cantor grinned and leaned towards me in a way that kept making me think he was going to tap my knee, though at no point did he do that. ‘You know, I couldn’t go to India. The States, anywhere in Europe, no problem. But India? Rather you than me.’
‘Because of the instability? The uh, political instability?’
‘Because of what I’ve heard described as the persistent and ubiquitous reek of shit.’
We laughed. It was the end of the working day, of the working week, and we were sitting on deeply comfortable reclining chairs, not quite facing each other, no desk between us. In fact I couldn’t see a desk anywhere in the room. I tried to imagine Ess’s office without a desk and it was like imagining a church without an altar.
‘Anyway,’ Cantor went on, ‘I appreciate your coming to see me, because I’m keen to get your take on all this. All this Ray stuff. All this… Indian… antigravity… stuff.’
I thought: There’s a ray now? Then I realised he just meant Ess.
‘Okay,’ I said.
He smiled, sat forward in his deep chair.‘So… what is that?’ ‘What’s my take?’
‘Yes, exactly that.’
I blinked, opened my mouth to speak, then a while later closed it again. I blinked and blinked. But there was nothing I could say.
‘If you don’t mind…?’ Cantor was smiling at me now as if he thought I was close to bursting into tears. Oddly it was true. I was close to bursting into tears. ‘I think it’s like this. Put me right, jump in at any point. But basically I think it’s like this. I think you’re extremely fond of Ray. You’ve worked with him for a long time, and you’ve certainly been loyal to him. You respect him, as we all do, and you feel sorry for him, as we all do, especially in light of his recent health issues. Am I on the right lines so far?’
I nodded, careful not to dislodge the tears trapped all round the inside of my eyes.
‘So there’s that. At the same time you’re a sensible guy. You hear him talking about this… stuff, and your heart sinks. Because you know all it means is he’s not really well. Not really himself again yet.’
After a while I nodded again, slowly, cautiously.
‘So there’s that. At the same time you’re thinking, “What’s Martin Cantor playing at? Why is he letting Ray go ahead with this?” That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?’
I tried to look at him, but couldn’t. I managed a gradual shrug. ‘Steve, like you I know this trip, this whole thing is madness. I don’t know what a doctor would call it – a symptom, an ailment. Why am I letting it go ahead? Because I believe it’s in Ray’s best interests for it to go ahead. I genuinely do.’
Now I did look up at him. He was still wearing that rippled smile.
‘I genuinely believe the best thing for Ray is to let him work through his issues in his own way. Let him take his own path through whatever he’s dealing with. Ideally with a good man at his side, a good friend, looking out for him at every step.’
I gave a low laugh. It sounded surprisingly normal.
‘And there’s another reason.’ Cantor’s manner abruptly hardened or flattened: he seemed to be speaking to me from behind a screen of glass. ‘You don’t know this, no one does yet, but next month we’re taking the big step and putting Resolute into administration. It’ll be a painful process. The end of the company, basically. I’m sure you can see why it would be in no one’s interests for Ray to be around while this happened.’
I stared at him, squinted at him – screwed up my completely dry eyes.
‘You know what he’s like.’ Cantor gave a metallic laugh.‘How he always has to get stuck in… but he can’t fight the administrators. This is a battle he simply can’t win. So I think we can agree that it would be no bad thing if next month, while we see to this administration business, Ray weren’t around. If Ray were elsewhere, happy, happily oblivious, pleasantly distracted. I think we can agree on that. Am I right, Steve? Can we agree on that?’