2. The Guilt of Privilege
Lying on his bed at the Excelsior, in reawakened anger James Bond spat - erupted - smoke at the mottled ceiling. Damn fool scheme, this. Not a surprise that Pemberton – whose identity he had verified by a quick telephone call to Rome – had not wished to stay to brief him; probably too ashamed at the crass artifice.
Another irritation: Masaniello. Pleasant enough company, a genial host amongst a city of thugs and thieves, but a broken reed, smothered in the soft life already, scared not of real dangers but of losing status, his job, his pension. A generation that had not fought a war; a generation that would put its personal interests above that of the state. And unless the Russians made good on their sabre-rattling, there would be no war to turn their soft bellies and self-indulgence to iron. But then, thought Bond as he ground the cigarette stub into the ashtray that lay on his stomach, was it right to wish for war simply to satisfy oneself that those who would follow would maintain standards? Was it right to wish for war simply to prove that he, Bond, was still necessary?
To give him some credit, though, Masaniello had organised a dinner suit to be delivered to the room. Although Bond disapproved of the label, and that for some thankfully unknown reason it was double-breasted, it looked a decent enough fit. Enough to conceal the PPK, at least.
On shaving, he cut himself on a crack in his face that he had been trying to ignore. Five more years… Too many grey hairs in the stubble, not displeased to see them washed away.
Three more years…
For thirty minutes, dressed only in a towel and naked from the waist up, he stood on his balcony, drying himself in the dropping sun, watching the city die for the day and thinking of nothing except her. How she had said little or nothing at the inquest. How she had stood, never removing her sunglasses, never betraying herself… Bad memories. He stared without interest at the fishermen unloading their boats and decided to think instead of the little tin of Benzedrine that, unknown to the Quartermaster, had also travelled for the past three years in the leaded compartment alongside the gun. His mind made up, he allowed himself three grains and sped their effects by standing under an ice-cold shower for two minutes dead.
At half past five, he descended to the empty Excelsior bar and in a triple bourbon and three Chesterfields, he lost himself to reflecting on what Masaniello had told him while they had walked back to the Gambrinus.
“I talk about the orphanage, yes? You will need to know about it; it is your story. So, it opens for she wishes to do good deeds, I think. She takes an old chapel on the harbourside at Amalfi.”
“Why not in the city? Surely that would be easier?” Bond had asked.
“That is true, but it is largely because of the city that the orphanage is necessary. I think Lady Elizabeth likes being Lady Elizabeth – being English Naples - more than she likes Napoli Naples, yes? I have often heard her say how dirty the city is. This is to say the sky is blue and the birds, they sing.
“So, tonight, all the good people will go to Ravello and celebrate this grand scheme. There is a cloud, however. Lady Elizabeth, she did not pick well her first nurse. This woman, from the Via San Gregorio Armeno – that is near the Duomo – she takes a baby. It is an orphan baby, so there are no parents to cry for it, but the Lady Elizabeth, she is a mother to them all, yes? There is a great search, for three days. And then the police find the nurse and the baby – but the baby, she is dead. It is a sad tale. But the nurse, she says that she did not harm the baby. She will say that in the one minute, it sleeps and then in the next minute, it is dead.
“I understand that she is not believed. I know this for my friend Gennaro is her lawyer and do what he may, there are not enough lira in the city to persuade the police to change their minds. So, it comes to trial next month. It is all very unfortunate.”
“Do you know what Lady Elizabeth’s feelings are?” Bond had asked, as they stopped outside the Gambrinus.
“I know that she does not blame the woman. She blames the city. Yet there is no disease in the baby. But perhaps to say that helps her with her cause, yes?”
They had parted, and Bond had stayed in the square until Masaniello’s bulk had merged into the crowd. He did not appear to be followed.
At six, Bond left the hotel and walked to the small Hertz office in the Via Monte di Dio. Gazing ruefully at the new silver Lancia convertible that stood gleaming on the tiny forecourt, and both prevented by his memories and knowing that he could not properly justify it on expenses, he handed over fistfuls of notes for forty-eight hours of a dented, potentially blue Topolino that better suited his apparent tourist cover-story. He had had no idea what he would do with the car after the evening but the deal appeared to be phrased in terms of two days or two weeks with no possible negotiation.
Although Masaniello had recommended one hour to Ravello, Bond had remembered the journey of the morning and resolved to give himself two: this also gave him something to do, for only pain was a worse sensation than the torpor that sets in when killing time in a hotel bar. Thirty minutes at a standstill at the appropriately named Angri made him wonder whether he had grossly underestimated. Yet, once the drivers had tired of their gesticulations for the day and the traffic thinned, he found it was just he and the happy burbling of the tiny engine making their way to the south along the Corbora road. Either side of him, purple gorse, lithium-aflame in the setting sun, lit his way and with nothing on the road to occupy him, he reconciled himself to the fact that his real irritation – after all, Masaniello had done a decent enough job - was at not knowing what to say to her when he saw her. He surprised himself by smiling broadly for he had not felt this unsure about meeting a woman since… when? He hazarded a guess at age thirteen, and his grin broadened further as he remembered…
The lights in the rear view mirror jolted him back to himself. Right behind him, right on his backside. What the hell…? Pay attention, 007.
He slowed; the car behind, a battered Fiat saloon, slowed. As far as the Topolino could manage it, he increased the speed. Still the Fiat stayed with him. Even though the little car’s lights were weak in the spreading darkness, Bond knew that they were the only two on the road.
Pass me, then…
Or was this some welcome from the good family Fanucci? He had little doubt that the guest list would have found its way to the Corelli woman and from her to her nephew. What of this last minute addition, the Englishman at the Excelsior…?
Gritting his teeth, and now regretting for his own sake more than the Service purse that he had not taken the Lancia, Bond stared into his rear view mirror. Just the driver, it seemed, but hard to tell as there was nothing behind to silhouette the saloon’s occupants clearly. Driver, hatted, broad shouldered… what was that? In the back, some movement, the driver turning to speak – a gunman? He reached into his jacket and slowly, so as not to draw too much attention to it in the lights of the following car, drew the PPK and rested it on the passenger seat.
Through Casa di Lieto the winding road drew the strange little procession. At each turn, some back on themselves, the dark-orange sun changed position and it became difficult for Bond to pay enough attention to the distraction behind when the way ahead spiralled so. Still, the Fiat stuck with him, still the driver appeared to be talking – now quite animatedly – with the unseen rear passenger and still Bond tried to keep the Topolino from tumbling down the cliffside. He toyed with the idea of braking hard, having the Fiat run into him and conducting an immediate enquiry – either an exchange of insurance details or one of gunfire - but given that he did not altogether trust the condition of his little car’s brakes nor was he under any illusions that the pursuer could not just swat him off a bend in the road, he pressed on.
At certain points, the sun had gone and whilst this meant that Bond had to slow, whereas in other circumstances he would have afforded himself a long glance behind, with the sunlight out, what little indication the road had of bends, drops, gullies, had to be searched for ahead even more carefully. It was only when, finally, the road straightened on the approach to Scala, the fissures at either side smoothing out, that Bond looked back again. What was the game here? If they had wanted to run him off the road, such a terrible accident but these tourists they can be careless, they could have done so…
His jaw tightened. The driver was raising something. Ahead, the lights of Scala were too close, surely, for them to attempt something here? What was that he was holding…?
And the Fiat turned to the right and the man drove himself and his young daughter into their garage and Bond was left wondering at Italian road safety – he had lit the route home for them... well, buona sera. Slowing down, he lit himself a cigarette and laughed at the improbability of having to explain to a little girl why he had crashed her father’s car…and shot him.
A final twist through Minori and he was into Ravello. Ahead, and uphill, the Villa Cimbrone, lit by one hundred flaming torches, seemed to Bond to stand just at the point where the sky changed from deep indigo to ice blue, as if it too were clinging to the day and about to join the sinking sun in being dragged off the cliff and into the sea. Surrounded by fire, the villa appeared eerily volcanic and it was as much as Bond could muster as he drew the car to a halt under a cypress just outside the grounds, not to look over his shoulder, beyond the hills and cliffs of the peninsula, to where he knew the mountain lay, waiting…
He was relieved that there were more ridiculous masks than his. The camaraderie of anonymity in the guarantee of knowing someone for only one night, if that, swept him into a group of happily drunk revellers crunching their way up the gravel drive. A girl in a sapphire blue gown, the type of dress of which Bond approved and had heard referred to as “truffles” – expensive, of questionable taste and practically non-existent – hooked her arm through his and, delighting in the instant superficial nothingness, the absolute absence of consequence, the invitation into a normal life but primarily because he wanted to, Bond turned, cupped her face in his hands and kissed her, hard. Gloriously, she tasted of happy energies, of vitality, of more trouble than she was worth. Beneath her blue silk headpiece, he saw her eyes close in pleasure, in memory, in satisfaction. When they parted, she kissed him once on the left cheek, beamed a Venus smile of grazie and ran to join her friends.
But she did look back.
Amused, gratified, Bond walked through the villa. Masaniello had tried to impress on him the names of the literary set that had made it their retreat but even those of which Bond had heard meant nothing more to him than that: names. Accordingly, he ignored the various display cases of first editions of Strachey and Lawrence and the original oils of God-alone-knew-who now being cooed over by peacocks, pirates, harlequins, and wandered into the gardens.
Under the pergolas and around the fountains, more masked figures flitted. Relieving a white suited waiter of a glass of what was very nearly champagne, Bond strolled along the main path, brushing aside the hanging white blooms as he had earlier brushed aside the sheets and shirts. But here, no sewer-lives, no desperation, no threat of each second splitting into either violence or absurd gestures of love. Here, there was simple, conscience-free happy living and it took him several moments to allow himself to acknowledge that here was perfect.
At the end of the colonnade, the setting sun reducing them to blurred sticks, several people stood, apparently motionless, apparently transfixed in watching the benevolent nuclear bomb wave its daily goodbye. As he weaved his way through the revellers and the figures became broader, in the one broadest of all he recognised his companion of the afternoon. They had agreed that, to assist identification, Masaniello should be talking to the Corelli woman when Bond arrived; about what, Bond had left to Masaniello’s discretion and evident ability to talk as if the defence of the city depended on it. Seeing the woman – as stout and as much of a crustacean as Masaniello had intimated, the mask disguising nowhere near enough – worked to remove some of the place’s perfection so, after the merest nod to Masaniello, who was professional enough not to respond, Bond joined the others in their sun-worshipping.
In this, the transient pleasure returned. The view from the belvedere was an astonishing one; below them, in a sea of a blue beyond description, the sun was dipping, and in its death throes was hurling rainbows of colour back at the steep cliffs that surrounded the villa and the little town. The hillsides, by day yellow-green with olive and lemon trees, in the five glorious minutes that Bond stared at them, burst pink, then purple, then silver and for Bond, this outshone all and any firework display. And it would happen, here, nightly. He wondered what it would look like without the Benzedrine and alcohol behind his eyes.
One more year…
But how many had the same thought? How many more would find this place and bring their airport thrillers and corn plasters and individually wrapped fruit pies? And children? How long would it take before this place was overrun by vulgarity and there were firework displays out in the bay? And yet, he thought as he drained his glass, why should that be his concern? By the time that happened, he may be dead. He had to live for moments like this and leave worrying about the future to those who could not sufficiently fill their present.
There was another view.
Masaniello and the Corelli woman aside, the others on the terrace comprised an equally transfixed group of three men and two women, who had been engaged in easy conversation, untroubled by the need to fill the regular ascents into silence brought on by the frequent – and impossibly wonderful – changes in the light. What interested Bond about them was that their conversation was in English, something ebbing and flowing about school fees and terrier breeding and Cowes Week; affluent chatter. As the hills began to darken and their conversation cruised up a gear, he decided to pay them more attention, relying on Masaniello to keep his companion occupied. As the talk meandered into the price of parking in London, the absence of decent golf clubs north of Henley and, again, school fees – the particular subject of the dark haired, stoutish woman wearing a tight fitting emerald silk headpiece which suited her less well than the tweed jacket and riding boots Bond suspected as her everyday attire – he saw in one of the men a resigned lowering of the shoulders, the husband who had heard this many times and indulged it too often to let her believe that it was acceptable or that her opinions were fit for airing, and in the other two men, such as could be made out behind their black silk masks, a listlessness, an absence of curiosity, as if this subject could never possibly affect them.
One of these others ventured nothing; tall, probably under thirty, plainly a local; good-looking lad. The other man, shorter, thin, blond, pale, turned to him several times as the rotund woman rattled along, and smiled weak smiles of encouragement, tolerance…tenderness? And with that unmistakeable back to him, that back still slender and still scarred, Bond knew he had found in due order Giorgio, Sir David and Lady Elizabeth Cheshire. Perhaps that was how it was, perhaps that was how they would be introduced socially; perhaps it was no big secret. Given that Cheshire was wearing a wing-collar dress shirt, it would not stay a secret for long. God Almighty, couldn’t these damned people be more subtle about it?
Interesting, though, how she made no effort to cover her wounds. The white silk dress she wore, of which Bond was in approval, covered little of her back and gathered itself back together again teasingly just at the base of her spine. In her right hand she clasped a fashionably miniscule evening bag, in her left, the silk-wrapped stick supporting her mask, which Bond could imagine bobbing up and down whenever she felt duty bound to agree with the other woman’s prattle. All very gracious, all very suitable for her position, and yet those scars pale against the tanned skin, burned at Bond as vividly and as obviously as the last gleams of hot sunlight now shooting across the dark sea. Would anyone else see? Would they feel too deferential to mention them? Perhaps she found a security in that. Had her husband mentioned them? But then, had her husband ever…?
The dark-haired woman’s husband, evidently aware of boring their hosts, made a play of steering his wife away to look at the rose gardens. Cheshire excused himself on the pretext of finding a drink and Lady Elizabeth and Giorgio were left together, in evident discomfort. Then the young man affected surprise beyond her shoulder, forcing a cheery greeting towards where Masaniello was standing, still behind Bond. He smiled at his rival, and moved away as quickly as he could without being seen to run. On his leaving, he passed Bond and had there been a moment when she had turned and looked directly at Bond…?
Lowering her mask, with her back to Bond, she moved to the stone balustrade and stared out at the sea, the sun now beyond the horizon and its pink-orange trail promising yet another beautiful tomorrow. Bond checked Masaniello’s position; now talking with Giorgio and Emilia Corelli, who turned to face him just as Bond did the same to her. Was there something in that incline of the head, the way her glass raised in slywinking acknowledgement? Perhaps so; and therefore he considered it too dangerous to be too direct with the good Lady Elizabeth. Abandoning his plan to walk up to her brazenly and greet her, jettisoned as much through caution at being spied on by Corelli as through the memory of their last, politely English goodbye, he sauntered to the edge of the belvedere, a good six feet to her right, and pretended to finish a drink long gone.
“I knew it was you,” she said, not moving her gaze from the burning horizon, her voice as level as the sea a quarter of a mile beneath them. “I saw you walking along the avenue. That scar on your cheek gives you away… it’s unmistakeable.” Delivered out to sea, in the strained polite accent of the moneyed class into which, under the guise of good grace, they drip the worst poisons.
Bond said nothing. He wondered how this would go; whether it would be as gruesome as he suspected. What grudge did she bear? What bitterness? That he had refused her? In the circumstances, what option had he had? He was sure now that this meeting was indeed a terrible mistake, that he had been foolish to be swayed by Masaniello, Pemberton…M; damn the old bastard.
He recognised the tone of voice as a weapon used against him by at least two previous lovers… but then he had not made love to this woman… this woman who may have murdered her husband.
“I’ve prepared myself for meeting you again,” she continued. “Meeting anyone from… those times. It would be you as much as anyone; after all,” she forced a laugh, “it’s not as if this is Fidele’s sort of scene, is it?”
Still looking ahead, Bond replied: “So how do you feel now?” How polite; how very cocktails at dusk, all very clipped, all very – and hideously - English. The toxicity of insincerity, deadlier than any venom.
“I feel… actually, James,” and at this her voice dropped its monotone and she turned her body towards him, “actually I’m really happy to see you.” Bond turned his head and saw her smile. But still, her eyes… they were not quite…
He decided to play along; what the hell, see where it goes. “It’s good to see you too, Liz. You don’t mind me crashing the party, do you? In the area, at a bit of a loose end…”
She walked slowly towards him, her eyes not meeting his but staring over his shoulder. As she landed the perfunctory social kiss of greeting on his left cheek, she whispered “Let’s go for a walk. Emilia is staring.” Pulling away, louder and not for Bond’s benefit, she declared: “I must show you the gardens!”
Laughing an expensively trained social laugh, she slipped her right arm under his left and they turned away. The heat of the sun having gone, Bond felt the back of his neck burning. Plainly, Emilia was not happy.
In silence, they walked from the belvedere and through a gap between two high rose-bushes, the pink blooms tipped gold in the dusk, stopping at a little circular faux-ancient temple. Bond did not resist her sliding her arm from his as she made to sit on a curved stone bench facing the sea, and waited for what would come. Still silent, she slipped an expensive-looking silver cigarette case from her bag, lit two and handed one to Bond, who accepted it with a smile. Watching her smoke made him smile more; no affectation, no holders and no artificial daintiness to irritate him – she knew what she was doing.
Still, she did not appear to want to start a conversation so Bond turned and admired the other view and waited.
“David doesn’t like me smoking; he says that it’s very bad for my skin.”
Bond turned. He surprised himself with the directness of his question, as if unknown to him it had been bursting to release itself. “Are you happy, Liz?”
Although she did her best to suppress it, Bond noticed the cough and the way in which she blushed told him that she knew he had heard it. “Yes, very,” and she almost succeeded in convincing him. He wondered why she had this habit of burdening him with ounces of doubt. “Why don’t you take a seat? You must be tired after your drive.”
Bond sat beside her, but because she did not move along the little bench, his left leg pressed into her right; his blood raced. She looked at him. “You can remove the mask, James. It’s quite safe here.” Doing as he was told, he rolled the silk into his inside pocket, rubbing his knuckles against the gun. As he had heard her cough, she must have noticed his slight reaction. “What is it?”
“Nothing; don’t worry. It’s…” He stared at her; the six years had barely visited her. Her figure remained, her hair still golden honey, her eyes still hollows of melancholy. “That’s good, Liz, that you’re happy. You deserve it.” Bland platitude, he told himself. Quite what she had ever done to have deserved getting married to two wealthy and influential men remained a mystery to him; but then quite what she had ever done to be hurt by them – her cough had been a horrific giveaway – similarly uncertain.
She smiled, weakly. “I know; I’m very lucky to be where I am now.” Bond silently agreed. After all, had he not had that hurried discussion with Barbey when they had made port, she would have been facing life; possibly the rope. Distracting them both, she ran her free hand through her hair and it shimmered in the last of the day. “What a coincidence, though! And I do mean it; it is really wonderful to see you. I see so few of my old friends out here.” Bond said nothing but surmised that if he of a few days’ acquaintance was counted as an old friend, then she truly was a woman who had compensated for great loneliness in great wealth. Or perhaps she had jettisoned the one for the other. Not an original story, but he felt sorry for her nonetheless.
Slowly, she raised her right hand and touched his cheek. “But are you happy, James? Tell me you are.”
He turned his head towards her a degree more, but she removed her hand as if bitten. As gently as he knew, but in no mind to answer truthfully, he took it in his left hand and replaced it. “When you do that, yes I am.” He moved her willing hand to his mouth and kissed her fingertips, feeling her relax under his touch. In unison, they both flung their cigarettes away, at which Bond was surprised to find himself join her in laughter, and he took her face in both his hands and kissed her, hard, as he had always wanted to. Whether it was the last seconds of sunlight, the final kick of the Benzedrine or his blood burning in his body he did not know, but the sensation thrilled him, scorched him and he willed it to last forever.
Her arm locked in his in more than politeness, as they walked twenty minutes later through fussy gardens of plants he did not know, well away from the crowd and welcoming the protection of the dusk, she whispered to him, “You were worth waiting for, James. But I don’t know…if….”
He stopped, causing her to. “Your husband.” This he had been expecting. This he had been wanting, or convincing himself that he would want. No connections, no ties. “I quite understand.”
“That’s very sweet, James, but I’m not sure that you do.”
Try me. “Your husband seems a good man. From what I hear.”
“He is. A very good man. I could love him, should love him, for he shows me every kindness, and only kindness. I can’t remember a cross word between us. He’s a darling. It’s not…” She paused. “It’s not as… passionate as Milt.” Not the day’s biggest surprise, thought Bond. “Or you.” Of all the men she could have compared him to, he was not remotely flattered, and felt his grip on her weaken. “But if I do love him and lose him, then… I don’t know. I can’t go through that again.”
The “if” had been all he had heard. “I’m not asking that of you, Liz, and if it causes you any embarrassment, I can disappear as easily as I appear; it’s a particular talent of mine.” He tried to sound light-hearted, but knew he had failed.
She looked away, back towards the villa and the noise of the crowd. “So, another goodbye? Back urgently to London again?” He could feel the lie he had used in the Seychelles biting into him.
“Not at all. I’m around for a few days more, I expect.”
At this, she noticeably improved, and they started walking again. “Then you must let me show you around. Perhaps, tomorrow, you’ll come swimming with me? At Praiano, just along the coast? I go there every other afternoon.”
“I’d love to,” Bond said, noting her easy slide away from guilty lover into polite hostess. Playing along, he added “And you must tell me about this orphanage of yours.”
At this she beamed and her eyes blazed in pleasure greater even than that she had shown when he had kissed her. “Oh, more than that! I will show you!”
When they reached the steps of the villa, and heads turned towards them, she remembered how to behave and kissed him politely on the cheek, gave him hurried directions to the beach at Praiano and, well aware that he watched, walked to play dead Empires and hollow diplomacies with a group of well-fed, self-important local dignitaries, such dignity only mildly bruised by the absurdity of their masks. Helping himself to another glass of whatever-the-hell-it-was, Bond smiled to himself when he thought about the way her eyes had – finally – burned joy when he had mentioned the orphanage. When it dawned on him that this had been as energised as she had looked all evening, even during the stolen moment in the little temple, he shrugged to himself and began to wonder where the truffle girl had got herself to, and from whom he could rescue her.
The bulk of Masaniello hoving into view, a cloud in a cloudless sky, dragged his mind back to the less pleasurable. He had forgotten about the tale of the afternoon and this was an unwelcome reminder. “You have spoken to Lady Elizabeth, yes?”
Bond contemplated the young man who, although he still wore his mask, betrayed in his unfastened bow tie and crumpled collar the signs of enjoying himself; Bond hoped for his sake that it was something better than the Corelli object. “Yes, Rico; we had some catching up to do.” He did not wait for Masaniello’s comment. “Now, where’s this Corelli woman got to?”
“She has gone, my friend.” Bond felt a pang of guilt, thinking of what M would say about losing his chance to observe her. But still, holiday… and Liz Krest’s kiss… stop thinking about her being Liz Krest…but was it easier to cheat on dead Milton Krest than it was this inoffensive little bureaucrat? Why be guilty? If it had been her, she had had her revenge on Krest, and now he was having his. Bastard deserved it.
Bond raised his eyebrows. “Then I’ll have to stay in Naples longer than I thought.” Even though Masaniello’s eyes were well shielded by the drink-skewed mask, Bond felt he knew the look in them. “And only for that reason,” he added, giving himself away.
The catch of laughter in Masaniello’s voice was unmistakeable. “I nearly believe you, Mr James. Ah! You should not drink that pig’s dung. Come, there are better drinks inside.”
Just as earlier in the day, Bond let himself be carried away by the younger man’s enthusiasm for living. Gauche, inexperienced and carrying too much weight he may have been, but Bond had come to recognise in Masaniello a good heart and, if only he had been in a different profession, someone he would have instinctively trusted. Happy people pleased him. And perhaps the fault was his, not this Rico’s. Over what Tanner, in his overeducated way, would have called “Anne Boleyns” of Smirnoff Black – six fingers – Masaniello proved himself once more engagingly garrulous company, and even if he had not remembered that he had told Bond that Lady Elizabeth did not live at the official residence with her husband but in an apartment which Sir David never visited on the harbourside at Amalfi, Bond did.
And valued it.
Bursting upwards through the cold water, James Bond let his burning lungs snatch at the warm afternoon air. He rose until his waist was clear of the surface and the world stopped around him as he felt suspended in the heat of the day and the security of pure pleasure before crashing back to the water with a smack of a splash. Glorious, hot pain shot through him, warming him in the chill of the deep, charred-sapphire offshore water. He ran his hands through his hair and found himself doing something he thought he had forgotten: he laughed to himself in happiness and now, both alive and living, he knew that whatever Venice had promised, to be here was more pleasure than it could have given him.
There she was, her back to him, clinging onto the sunblistered side of their little red rowing boat.
Surface-diving back into the clear, cold, ink-blue sea, he could see her legs treading water by the hull.
Pushing forward, fuelled both by adrenaline and a child-like glee he was amazed to feel himself experience, he shot through the water and grabbed the legs, dragging her down. As she plunged below the surface, the shock in her eyes turned to invitation and she pressed her lips into his and as one they dropped to the coral floor of the little bay.
Later, her right hand clutched in his left along the side of the boat, she feigned anger. “You brute; that could have been a shark. Another month and they do come pretty close to shore. You hear all sorts of stories about people swimming out too far, beyond the tower.”
Bond smiled, kissed her slowly and ran his free hand down her body, working idly at the straps of her indecently brief scarlet bikini.
“However,” she said slowly, teasingly and pulling herself away with a pleasing reluctance, “there are some things more dangerous than sharks.” And yet, as he looked at her, her gaze went beyond him, behind him and he lost the moment in feeling compelled to turn around and follow it. Nothing; on the scalinatella cut into the lemon terraces and sea-thrift that ran up the cliffs, no more than two, perhaps three figures, doubtless more tourists, but apart from them the stony scree was busy in no more strenuous or suspicious activity than joining them in basking in the hot May sun.
He turned back to her. “What is it, Liz?”
As if slapped back to life, she jerked her face back to him and smiled weakly. “I’m sorry, James. But… well… after Milt…died… there was some trouble, a lot of trouble, with his second wife, Pat. Not that there weren’t enough problems with the awful IRS people and all the lawyers and all these people who appeared from nowhere, directors and board members and all these horrid people… they took hundreds of thousands of dollars… people often say that I must have been left terribly wealthy but it’s not true… after all the tax and paying for advice I know I could have thought of myself… I wonder whether it was all worth it.”
Bond wondered whether that was an admission of guilt. Apparently reading his mind, she continued, “Getting married to Milt, I mean. I have some money but it’s not so much… and then Pat starts creating fuss, alleging I was having affairs and challenging that I was entitled to such little I did end up with. And even though I’m here, I can’t help feeling that… if she could get proof…”
Bond stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. “Come on, Liz. It’s not her concern. Besides, all the Milt business is over now. You have a new life here.” Still, it confirmed to him where in her priorities her relationship with her husband lay; haunted by the skeletons of yesterday, poor girl. It was a residual fear, not of Sir David Cheshire, but of that long-dead, long-rotted bastard Krest that had caused her to insist that they row out quite so far, that they now tread water around each other and each other’s lives, facing the open sea rather than the charming little inlet of Praiano.
“And,” he continued, truthfully, “you’re much happier. I can see it.” He wondered if he could make her eyes shine, as he now knew they could.
She pressed her body into his. Under her breath as she pressed her lips hard into his she whispered “I do love my husband, James.”
He felt the string of her bikini slip fall through his fingers as it worked itself free from her. “I believe you.” He eased her hand off the edge of the boat.
They drifted free. Bond could feel her legs wriggling into his, both treading water and open in invitation. “You won’t let me go, will you?” she gasped. Advantageously, there was no time to reply before they disappeared below the still surface.
When it was time to eat, Bond rowed the boat around the headland until they were out of view of the bathers and holidaymakers in the village and, at the foot of the coast tower guarding the bay, they lay alongside each other in the little hull, each making a play of pretending that this was a comfortable way in which to eat their rough little picnic, and each soon accepting, in contented laughter, that it was not. Abandoning the meal, they lay, staring into the afternoon sky, watching the sea doing nothing but watching them doing nothing.
“Did you do it, James?”
Bond had waited six years for her question. “If you’re asking me whether I killed Milt, no – I didn’t kill him.”
He had also waited six years for her reaction, and it proved as disappointing as he feared. “Then it must have been Fidele,” she said, quietly.
To stop himself thinking about how little she was convincing him, he leant across her and kissed her softly on the forehead and, tenderly, started to thread his fingers gently – he hoped soothingly and distractingly – through her long, wet hair, now bath-warm in the early afternoon sun. “I’m sorry if seeing me again has reminded you of all that, Liz. Let it go.”
She closed her eyes, and a smile spread across her pinking face. “I know I should but… I can’t do that, James. I’d be… denying a part of my life. Whatever you thought about Milt, I did love him…”
Bond looked down the length of her back. There, against the smooth, brown skin stood proud three savage scars, as if she had been clawed at by a vicious animal. Which, he considered, was not so very far from the truth. When he returned his gaze to her face, he found that she was looking directly at him. “I know what you’re thinking, James. How could I love a man who did that to me? Well, don’t believe, dear James, that I haven’t asked myself that question so many times and I still can’t find an answer other than everyone ultimately needs love. Don’t you agree?”
Bond lay quiet, letting the sun dry him and hoping that she would let the question die on the breeze. When she repeated it, he felt trapped.
“I’m not so sure,” he started, with no idea yet formed of how to end. “I think we try hard to make ourselves believe that when we find some merest scrap of contact, that that is love. Or can be made to be love, so impressed on all of us is this idea that love is all, love is the only thing to live for, without it we’re hollow…all the cheap songs. So hammered at us is it that we seem to think that we have something to do with it. Maybe we’re all so determined to shape love to our own desperate, lonely perceptions that we wouldn’t recognise it if the real thing were hitting us, hard. And we can end up doing damage, to others but especially to ourselves, with this manufactured grasping at love, more damage than being on one’s own could ever do.”
She turned her head and looked out to sea. “Do you really believe that? It seems quite… quite an ugly thing to believe.”
“I’ve had some bad experiences.” On hearing that on the breeze, he winced. He knew what he had meant but he also knew how she would interpret it. “Sorry. I suppose what I mean is that I’ve given up trying to find love, to manipulate it into appearing, and to let it find me. If it does, it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. When it did happen…when it did happen, it was that sensation one has when having searched for something, then given up on finding, and then forgotten about, it suddenly reappears in an unexpected place. Like losing one’s keys.”
“That sounds very simple.”
Bond had no response. He wondered what it was he had said; could not remember.
“And selfish,” she added. “If you shut yourself off from love, how will you recognise it when it does come?”
He turned her face to his. “I’m not shutting myself off, Liz. The door is always open.” To Bond’s surprise, she leant across, until she lay on top of him, and kissed him, pressing her lips into his, her body following. When she relaxed again, he gently lifted her from him and said, softly, “Are you on my doorstep?”
She looked down, struggling to hold her hair back as it tumbled around her face. “Oh, I could love you, James. That would be easy. But… if I did, to lose you…love will lead to loss; it’s inevitable. If you covet something, or someone, so much that being without them for any period of time brings longing, then permanent removal… it’s worse than an illness; you’ll never recover. And I’m not sure I could bring myself to think of you as I now think of Milt, so it would be even more unbearable.” She rolled off him.
Bond pushed himself up on his elbow, hearing the thin wooden planks creak disconcertingly beneath him. How far out of their depth they were, he did not know. “What do you mean?”
She stared blankly into the sky. “I was offered so much help when I got back to the States. Such a distressing incident” – to Bond’s ear, she said this with a chill calm – “and as many professional counsellors as the board of the Foundation could spend Milt’s money on; I was probably a tax dodge in that, too. I never really knew whether they were trying to make me feel better or send me mad, so that I was unfit to inherit. Still, I went along with it for show, and some of what they said…amongst an awful lot of rubbish, James… but some of it was interesting.
“There was one woman, in Madison Avenue. I think her name was Mary… no, Marie… anyway, she was honest enough not to pretend to heal me but to tell me some sharp things. And the sharpest thing she told me was that I should feel guilty.”
Bond wondered whether she heard his sharp breath.
She appeared not to, lost in the masochism of bad memories. “It’s natural when you grieve, especially if you have loved intensely.” I know. “You feel that the death of the other is your fault.” I know. “However silly that may be, you can’t help but feel it. She told me that this was very selfish. She told me, in fact I remember her shouting it, that I should not succumb to it. For a time, that worked. It went away, I tried to distract myself with other things…I met David…
“But guilt returned. It’s hitting me sharply, over the past year or so, and I’ve tried hard to work out why. I’m over the shock of Milt’s death and I’m sure that’s not where the guilt came from. I know, I’ve been told, told repeatedly that my…loss cannot have been my fault, was not. I accept that.”
Bond watched her eyes. Not a flicker. He wondered who had been doing the telling. “Truth told,” which Bond doubted, “I think I always knew it. But the guilt remained, the guilt festered and it grew, and I’ll tell you James where it came from. Love is something… You can turn it into hate very easily; that you wish the person had never existed – how much more can you hate someone than to think that? - so that they did not put you through this pain. How much easier life would have been if they simply had… not have happened, had never been born. Now, there’s a reason for guilt, and that’s why I can still feel guilty and do feel guilty – not because of what I think about Milt’s death but because of what I think about his life. No-one tells you you’ll feel that way. I fear I’ll end up hating him for living. Do you understand?”
Bond breathed deeply, slowly. Yes, by God, he understood. Willing himself not to remember, he did not reply, but stretched forward his right hand and took her left in it. Turning the two over, he circled his thumb softly around her palm and tried his most encouraging smile.
“I suppose what I’m saying is this: if I had dared to hate Milt before he died, been brave enough to do that, then I would have been spared the pain of hating him now. Hating him, loathing him,” she drew her lips back, “for the bastard that he was, and doing so when he was alive, could have… protected me. If you hate someone, do you feel guilty if they die? Does that sound terrible?”
“That’s lovely, the way you touch me there… Trouble is, I don’t think I did hate him. Not enough. That makes it so much harder now.”
James Bond stayed silent, knowing that she had said many things that he had known, knowing that as ideal as it would have been, to have done what she spoke of would have been impossible.
Anchored to their pasts, they lay until the sky began its indigo descent into early evening. Cutting the row-boat loose, rowing hard against the current determined to beat them back, Bond willed himself to think of anything other than the thought that had gnawed him throughout the afternoon; that this was the sort of perfect afternoon he had always imagined he would have shared with her, she who was gone; she who was taken. Come on, damn you…think…concentrate 007…
While he pulled at the water, he watched the girl comb her hair as she stared around at the view. At some point, he would have to tell her about the Corelli problem, that she may be in danger. And if not in danger for her life, then there appeared a definite risk of danger at being associated with another scandal. Could she survive two? He doubted it. The way she clung to the burning wreckage of Milton Krest shouted her frailty.
When they reached the little harbour, they changed clothes, Bond from his white swimming shorts into the black linen suit and soft cotton shirt in pale blue that he had treated himself to earlier that day, she into a plain white summer dress that, along with her absence of make-up and her scent of the sea, made her exceedingly distracting in the short Topolino ride from Praiano to Amalfi. Her close-woven, wide-brimmed straw hat he knew he recognised; just as distracting.
When he had arrived at Praiano at noon, as directed, she had been there, dangling her long, smooth legs from the harbour wall, chatting with one of the better-looking fishermen, albeit that the competition was mediocre. Explaining that she had been dropped off by one of the consulate staff who lived in Amalfi, she had been less than subtle in further explaining that she needed a ride home. As they had rowed out to swim, the fervent look in her eyes had returned and Bond had known that the transparent ruse was not – or not solely – an invitation to visit her, but also an invitation to visit the orphanage. When she had exclaimed happily that with the orphanage, she “meant something”, he had recognised in her what he had seen so often in women of the type, a desire to display to the greater public that, despite their wealth and advantages, that they had something to offer, that they were not merely considered layabouts or parasites. It was nothing more than guilt, the guilt of privilege.
And, he now wondered, as he walked with her up the steps before the Duomo at Amalfi, towards her apartment, was that really the guilt of which she had spoken in the boat?
She said, amongst unnecessary apologies for the state of the apartment, that she wanted to wash the salt water from her hair before going down to the orphanage. Bond drew a couple of generous bourbons and, waiting, settled on her balcony, and yet another damnably beautiful view lay before him. He wondered whether a man could tire of being astounded at every glimpse he took and turned to consider the apartment; simple, clean, sparse, three rooms including the bathroom. All the furniture looked local and well-used; none of the as-new lustre of the Wavekrest nor the faded gilt of the official residence in the city.
And yet, still, with her money – wasn’t there some inverted snobbery here? Wasn’t it symptomatic of that truism he had heard, that to be a pauper, one is a pauper, but to live like a pauper, one must be a king. As his eyes wandered along the simple wooden frame of the bed, the ancient dressing table littered with perfume bottles, the photographs – none of which, he had noted, involved Krest – rudely stuffed into cheap frames, the gramophone records piled messily, he felt there was still an artificiality here, something from the photographs of a Sunday supplement story about families who drop out of the intensity of London and move to the Dordogne to eat fabulous cheeses and do little. Indeed, the scruffier it looked, the more deliberately scruffy it appeared – expensively designed to appear cheaply hurled together.
Was this her attempt at returning to the simplicity she had once spoken of? If it was, all it did for Bond was show him how dangerously corruptive the easy life could be. Expensively arranged cheapness.
Nothing artificial in the way in which she took the drink, however. “I usually have a drink before I go down to the orphanage, James,” she said, apologising unnecessarily. On the balcony she stood, one white towel on her hair, one around her torso. “Sometimes, what I see there…” She trailed off. “David doesn’t come down here; he has other things to occupy him in the city.” Bond nodded, accepting the silent invitation. “I think he likes it that I keep myself out of trouble down here. It suits me, this little place.”
Again, she let the last words wisp into the early evening, no intention to have them followed.
Bond shook his glass. “Another?”
“Hm. Oh, no. You’ll have me ruining my figure.”
He stood, grabbing the towel she had wrapped around her as he leant in to kiss her. “Lovely figure, too.”
Gratifyingly, she trusted him not to remove the towel completely and instead let herself enjoy the kiss. “You too, James, you too…although I have to ask… all those scars… I always meant to ask… how…?”
She walked back into the little bedroom and teasingly let the towel slip so that he was left on the balcony holding it. “I was in the navy.”
At this, she clamped her right hand to her mouth but too late; the shriek of delight erupted. “Oh! And,” she continued, letting down her hair in a deliberate show, “were you an Admiral?”
“Hmm. Commander Bond… I like the sound of that… pass me that dress would you? No, the black one. You know, of course, about my notorious predecessor Emma?” Bond remarked that he remembered the tale from his schoolbooks, and noted the pretension of the “Emma”. He watched as she slipped into the little dress, by a designer of whom he had not heard but of whom he now approved wholeheartedly. After he had zipped her into it, she turned and laid both forearms over his shoulders. “Well, England expects, James; England expects…”
The Amalfi day – such as it ever stretches beyond languidly recovering lobster pots - was ending as they walked down to the harbourside where the orphanage stood. Younger – younger – couples, lying on the hard Duomo steps, engrossed in themselves and failing to prepare themselves for disappointment, ignored them as they wandered by. Indeed, every person had another: perhaps it was impossible not to fall in love in Amalfi as well as with Amalfi. It would have been nice if some of the young women had looked at him, though…
At the white-stuccoed single storey chapel at the harbour they stopped; a long, narrow building, two windows, slightly above eye-level, either side of the heavy wooden door at this, one of its short ends, a run of windows along its longer south side, facing the sea. The other walls of the building were pressed into the rock out of which, she told him, the original building had been carved some centuries previously, when the town had been it own republic and the harbour had been crowded by ships of all nations and merchants of all colours, instead of honeymooners and other couplings considerably more illicit.
At her knock, the door was opened by a small, thin olive-skinned woman of an age that all nurses appear to be – somewhere over forty, somewhere under eighty, nowhere precisely in-between. Kissing her on both cheeks, Lady Elizabeth introduced Bond as a friend from England who had come to see the charitable work – at least, Bond considered, she seemed to believe the cover – at which the nurse could not have been more uninterested. As the two women busied themselves with a discussion about the day’s events – remarkably few – Bond considered the surroundings. They were in a cool, high, whitewashed vestibule, a solid oak double door ahead of them which he assumed led into a main ward of some kind; either side, two other doors, presumably leading to the small chambers whose windows had faced them in the square. The one to the left bore a warning notice, a silhouetted figure clutching its throat in high drama. He assumed that it was a medicines room, or the like.
The nurse burbled on.
Bond’s acclimatising was interrupted when, amidst whatever the hell it was the woman was saying, he heard, twice, the name – Emilia. The first time he had turned his head back towards the chattering pair. On the second occasion, he saw the Englishwoman’s jaw tighten.
“Problem?” he asked, joining them.
“Hm? Oh no, not really. My secretary, Emilia, she was due here this afternoon but seems to have been delayed. She runs my office at the Consulate and although she telephones me every morning, every fortnight she comes over and we discuss various things. Carla here says she may be coming over very early tomorrow morning – six-ish I think - to drop a few papers off but I’ve explained to Carla that I… I might not be available.” She smiled. Carla did not, seeming to regard Bond with a bored contempt.
He returned the compliment, taking Lady Elizabeth by the hand and smiling insincerely at the little nurse. Half-remembering himself, he said “Well, you make sure Carla locks those papers up safely. Do you have a locked door around here?” When she motioned with her head to the door with the warning notice, Bond nodded, satisfied. “Good. Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait.” A locked room was always useful. Having made his mind up to be around when Emilia Corelli turned up, it would serve as a useful interrogation room.
Lady Elizabeth nodded at the nurse, and slipped her arm through Bond’s. “Come on,” she said, her eyes fizzing with pride, “let me show you what I do here, and why.” Almost dragging him, she walked to the double doors and, slowly, pushed them open.
It was, as Bond had suspected, a ward. But then, oddly, it was still very much a chapel. Few of the sparse religious decorations had been removed: a decorated altar still stood at the far end, tapestries covered the unwindowed north wall and on the south, the row of high stained glass windows shot down purple sunbeams to the marble floor. The only immediate difference was that, although arranged in rows, their were cots, not pews.
The chamber was silent, save that, at each crib they passed, soft breathing as the babies slept. “See,” she whispered, “see that they are dreaming of worlds better than this?”
“Where do they come from?”
“From the city; they are the children of cholera victims. They would be victims themselves. They will stay here until they recover their strength.”
“What happens then?”
At this, she stopped walking and her head lowered. “James… some of them never do. I… all I want is that they can be shown love. Bond raised her face with his hand, and gently rubbed the tears from her eyes. “All I want is that… if they have to die, they die loved, they die knowing peace and comfort and… that they were happy.”
“Will some of them survive?”
“Oh James, I hope so, I do. And if they do, I want to open another, somewhere in the country, somewhere where they can grow up away from the horrid city and grow strong and be healthy, before the next epidemic – that could be tomorrow, it could be years away. If I have to be remembered, then I’d much rather be remembered for that rather than… anything else. You will tell the people in London that, won’t you?”
He saw the piteous trust in her face and he felt wretched. “I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure they will be… impressed.” Stupid word. But one she did not react to.
They walked to the end of the chamber in silence, turned and retraced their soft footsteps. In the cool of the room, the stillness of the breathing and only the merest movement of tiny hands above the soft blankets, Bond felt unnerved. There was something unreal, as if this room was willing time to stop, to preserve the babies as they were, for if one second more were to pass, how many would die?
She stopped at the cot closest to the door and made a show of peering into it, smiling down at the little life within it. “They’re all very quiet,” Bond muttered.
She did not turn to look at him. “Carla’s very good with the sleeping draughts; they take away the pain.”
After a small detour to the car park at the harbour’s edge where he had parked the Topolino, and retrieving the gun from the tiny boot as subtly as he could, Bond walked up through the town to the Hotel Costanza, Lady Elizabeth having gone ahead to find a table. The overtures of sunset had drawn more lovers into the steep streets and, increasingly conscious of being on his own, as he ambled, hands in his pockets, his mind turned to her and what would happen if he decided to take it more seriously. She would have to learn when talk of the blasted orphanage became too much, but he could take himself off for a few days’ fishing if she proved a slow learner. That apartment of hers would have to be sorted out, too…
When he stopped to light a cigarette, he could smell her on his hands.
But was it impossible? The danger of any cover story was to delude oneself into believing it too; what would happen when she discovered what he did? Who was he to interfere in her life, tear apart her marriage which, whatever its strengths, seemed to be a source of comfort and happiness to her. And then, the mission – if he did have to remove the Corelli woman, would that place Liz in greater danger?
The look on M’s face he could picture. Cretaceous in attitude, M had never approved of Bond’s relations with women, and the further aspect of him having an affair with the wife of a senior British diplomat would doubtless send the old man into orbit. Bond knew that any response to such disapproval, that M should have sent someone else instead to Naples, would be absurd petulance not worth the saying.
Could he engineer the mission so that she had to look to him, and only him, for protection? Whatever the rewards of that, it would be damned difficult, and it would consume time that he was unsure he had. But the thought had reawakened to him the need to get to work, and to find out what the hell sort of shape the mission would take.
Accordingly, after a disappointingly meagre lobster salad, heavily compensated for by the view from their small terrace table over the gaily coloured houses of the town, the yellows, whites and pinks clashing unguiltily with the rich blue of the sea, Bond broached the subject: “Tell me about this secretary of yours. Emilia?”
Lady Elizabeth smiled, with some fondness. “Oh, she’s a godsend. You may have seen her last night, perhaps? No? Never mind. Put simply, James, she organises me; you could call her my “keeper”. Most importantly,” she refilled their glasses with the wondrous ice-cold Chablis Bond had recommended, “she sees to it that I don’t have to go into the city very often.”
“Convenient,” Bond said, and meant it. If Lady Elizabeth was out of the Consulate as much as possible and her husband had his hands full, in whatever manner, the blessed Emilia could happily mischief her way through the gap, do what the damned hell she liked, the protection of the British Government and her blasted nephew helping her. “Is it normal for her to miss an appointment?” When she laughed and reminded him that they were in Naples, he was relieved – he had wondered whether the woman not turning up had meant something sinister, and a something sinister revisited on the unfortunate Masaniello. He had not particularly liked the way Pemberton had set Masaniello up as a target by having the young man observe her in the church.
“Reminds me; I think I ought to see her when she comes in the morning. You don’t mind? Oh, you’re a sweetheart.”
Bond considered the complication; he had been intending to rise early to observe the Corelli woman; if Lady Elizabeth would be there too, would that be a problem? Still, if she did spot him, he could always come up with a pretext. “No problem, Liz. I may have to go into the city in the morning and see if there have been any messages for me. Shouldn’t be long. And,” he wondered if this was to overplay it, “I’ll have to check out of the Excelsior. Problem will then be finding somewhere else to stay.”
“That’s no problem.”
“I’m not sure that I can keep you in the style to which you are accustomed.”
She smiled, and, reaching across, walked her fingers slowly through his hair “How about I keep you in a style to which you’re not?”
Bond kissed her forehead, then whispered. “I’m not sure I was ever very good at being kept.”
She laughed. “Be fun trying, though, won’t it?”
Over a shared dish of fresh strawberries and a pot of strong, soupy coffee, watching the sun setting they became, to Bond’s great satisfaction, as indistinct a couple as those seated around them, as anonymous and normal as the pair that had sat at the table the night before, and the pairs that would sit there the following evenings of that summer and those for many years to follow. Calm contentment came as a thrill to him.
After Bond had pushed her bed to the doors of the apartment balcony so that it stood half inside the room, half-out, they lay, both naked under the thin cotton sheet, watching the stars reflected in the water, harder with each moment to distinguish them from the pinprick lights of the fishing fleet setting out. Both happy to lie in silence, still, they listened to the happy evening sound of the town as it rose around them, creating a sensation of blissful solitude without leaving the fun behind. When her rain of tender kisses fell, Bond thought he could hear the laughter and shouting in the streets below him increase in volume, not in prurient vulgarity but as if in congratulation.
He decided to give them something to cheer about.
It was, according to the luminous dials of his watch, three-thirty in the morning before the cold woke him. In the watery grey pre-dawn, her skin had turned a fishbelly white save, inevitably, for the scars across her naked back. Each time he had seen them they had deliberately chosen to shout, spitefully refusing to turn the same colour as the rest of her. Now they were lip-red, screaming the past and his proper self back at him. He grabbed a blanket from the side of the bed, laid it tenderly across her, and stared at the ceiling until he drifted back into sleep.
Even on the longest of her kisses, he did not wake, knowing it more sensible to let her think that he would sleep on and then follow her. But by Christ, she took a long time getting ready! Another habit of hers to break. When she finally shut the door behind her, he rose, careful not to be seen on the balcony in case as he rather hoped, she looked up from the road to where the bed was lying. In five minutes, he had showered, armed himself and written her a short note to state that he had gone into Naples; it would serve as a suitable story in the event he became waylaid with Emilia Corelli. He would have to think about something more sophisticated if that waylaying proved lengthy.
In the grey dawn, the sky the colour of old milk, Amalfi was a less cheery prospect. The happy multicoloured walls seemed to be trying too hard and it was less easy to ignore that many of them needed freshening up. At the top of the Duomo steps, now free of courting coupes, he stopped to absorb the view: the little blue car at the top of the harbour wall, the long white chapel and…
Slowly, he pressed himself back into the doorway of a gift shop. Yes, unmistakeable – what a fitting description of her walk Masaniello had come up with. Emilia Corelli, and not just Emilia Corelli but Emilia Corelli with an attaché case.
Through the rotunda of postcards of old Amalfi, in their monochrome heavily redolent of the Amalfi of that morning, he watched as she tapped on the door of the orphanage. A moment waiting, she looked around her in all directions, which was enough to confirm Bond’s suspicions of bad faith. Then the nurse, Carla, appeared and, to Bond’s surprise, rather than inviting Corelli in, the woman took the attaché case, Corelli nodded something in agreement and then scuttled away, along the harbourside and gone.
Damn; two targets, and now moving in opposite directions. Clenching his jaw, Bond moved from his hiding place and walked slowly down the steps. The decision had to be made when he reached the bottom; follow Corelli and intercept her, interview her and, if necessary, remove her – or follow the briefcase?
Reconciling himself that he knew where he could find Corelli – and that detaining her on British soil would prove less messy – he turned to the orphanage just as the light of the medicine room burned on.
Drawn like a moth, he padded across the still square towards it and when he reached the window, raised himself onto the tips of his toes and looked through.
“You were a brute to abandon me in Amalfi, James.” He noted the mock hurt in her eyes as he set down their drinks. He wondered whether she would slap him; even if she did, would the disappointingly few people in the pub notice? “But,” she said, raising the gin and tonic, her second, to her lips, “I forgive you.”
He smiled, thinly. “As I said, I wasn’t really expecting the immediate recall. Hell of a flap.” He sipped his beer – tepid, gassy, vile. “All I can do is hope that you find my apology enough.”
She laughed. “Enough? Oh darling, it’s so… wonderful. Whoever thought I would be recognised like this? It should be me apologising to you – you’ll have to let me know how I can do that….”
Bond tried not to hear her. He stared out of the window. He wondered whether he should give in to his thought of the previous day, just after he had explained the plan to Lewis. That would be a way out…
Damn the morning for being so beautiful.
Damn the night for not bringing sleep.
Parking the MGA in Savoy Street, James Bond paid the doorman five pounds to ignore it and walked into the lounge to wait for her. A nice June Saturday would bring the crowds out, crowds that would remember the little red car and the handsome couple in it, crowds that would be happy to tell their story to whoever would listen, the best price getting the best embellishments.
But wasn’t that what he wanted? Wasn’t that what had to happen?
If it had been raining, could he have called it off? Or was that just a stay of execution?
He watched the floor indicator arrow on the lift descend through the numbers, willing it to stop before she got out.
Not a chance.
At the pinging of the bell, the doors of the lift slid open. He rose to meet her.
So, that was it, organised. So terribly efficiently organised.
A Service classic, that; little enough could be done when one wanted things to happen, but when one willed obstructions, when one’s heart desired nothing more than unco-operative bureaucracy, suddenly all was too easy. Smooth sailing, he thought, and straight into a ing iceberg.
He sat for five minutes, looking at the telephone on his desk, thinking about as little as possible save that he knew he had to do it.
After all, it was his idea.
With the receiver cradled between his right shoulder and cheek, he waited for the operator to confirm that he had got through to the hotel. Some sort of instant GPO strike would be welcome…
“Good afternoon, The Savoy. Bonjour, The Savoy. Guten Tag....”
“Lady Elizabeth Cheshire. Please.”
“Who shall I say is calling, sir?”
Hmm, click, hmm.
By the fourth ring, his spirits lifted: the plan would fail. Good. But a fifth ring did not come.
“James! Oh James, it’s so good to hear from you!” He could imagine her, smiling, laughing, and he squeezed his eyes closed.
“Hello Liz. I wondered if I would catch you I thought you might be busy.”
“Oh, no,” and to his horror she could not have sounded happier, “the ceremony’s not until tomorrow evening. I thought you knew that?” There was a catch of doubt in her voice. “You are coming, aren’t you?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m very proud of you.”
“Oh, it’s so exciting, isn’t it? I can’t believe that you would do such a thing for me…”
Hmm. “Well, it’s not just me. I only made the recommendation to the department. You deserve it.” Horrible, arid, double-edged words that cut his tongue. “Anyway, reason I’m calling… I just wondered whether you’re free tomorrow for some lunch, say?” He tried light-heartedness. “I’m still in holiday mood, need to get out of London. Also,” and he knew he was talking too much, “I’ve been aching to give the new car a proper spin.”
“That sounds… oh, James, it sounds marvellous. Where shall we go?”
The cynicism, using her only apparently happy memory against her. He screwed his eyes even tighter, until they stung him. “I was thinking of a blast down to the New Forest. Unless…”
She appeared to squeal in excitement; coupled with the crackling of the telephone wire, it pierced his ears as brutally as it did his conscience.
So, arranged. Meeting at ten-thirty at The Savoy.
Had he been sure? Had he really seen what he believed he had seen? What he was prepared – determined – to let others believe he had seen? Was he using a misconception to justify getting rid of a potential embarrassment to him alone? Had he overplayed the hand?
No, he was sure.
He had to be.
Each time he reported to M, each time M would take him on trust. One of these days, thought Bond, I may accidentally mislead him. Or want to. Or need to.
Was that today?
Even if he were wrong, it would be convenient that nothing of their affair could be exposed…
He bit his lower lip and shook his head free of the thought. In picking up the receiver of the grey Ministry of Works telephone on his desk, he wondered whether he should have felt ashamed at the thought and, because he did not, should he have felt shame at that? Nothing.
He felt nothing.
Save that he had to hate her before she died. Then there would be no guilt.
Even the dialling of the motor pool number had been mechanical, so robotic that when the receiver crackled into life with the voice of the Chief Mechanic, he finally felt the shock that he had wondered he should already have been feeling. The thrill of the kill, was that the only stimulus for anything now?
For three minutes now, not one sound; not one. Bond, still standing at the high leaded windows of M’s office, continued to stare out unseeing at the nannies and mothers and abandoned mistresses wheeling their loved, planned and accidental charges along the pathways of Regent’s Park, enjoying the sunshine, enjoying their conversation, their gossip, their private thoughts, their release from whatever it was that had driven them there. With the sunlight projecting the shadows of the steel security bars onto his face, his sense of impotent captivity grew.
Had he really suggested…?
Was there any other way? He stared on, but the search for a liberating alternative in the sunwithered cherry blossoms and the distant, threatening humming of lawnmower blades proved futile, as he knew it would.
It was Parker who spoke first, the catch in his voice betraying as greatly as his words his inability to devise anything better. “I know that I do not approve of this.”
Bond, not moving, was sure that he could hear the tobacco of M’s pipe spit in fury. But, when it came, the old man’s response was calm; the deadlier for it. “I know that you don’t need to, Mr Parker.”
So, that was it. Bond knew that, given what would now happen, there would be no direct order; but M’s comment had been an order nonetheless.
He turned away from the window. The three visitors all stared either at the floor or at the ceiling; anywhere but him. Right, thought Bond, you bastards are as complicit in this as me. It isn’t individual action, it’s a damned conspiracy and I don’t like it either but I’m the one putting it into operation so, by God, I’m going to make each of you look me in the eye.
One by one.
He took two steps forward until he was uncomfortably close to Mr Lewis. Mr Lewis did not look up. Mr Lewis’ left leg began to shake and after one minute, the other joined it. Still he did not look, still he found something in the carpet more intrinsically appealing than being forced to share guilt.
M’s tapping of his pipe cracked open the silence. “Yes, thank you Mr James.” Bond did not move. “Mr James,” M’s voice was a whip-crack, “thank you.”
Bond broke, and looked up at his chief. The anticipated fury was not there; instead, a curious resignation, a weariness, as if the plan now in motion had suddenly aged the old man further. More smoothly, M continued “I’m sure our friends understand that this conversation never occurred and, as it never occurred, there seems no need to prolong it. I am satisfied that this room understands what it is we,” Bond noted the collective, “have decided to do and that what we need is co-operation in remembering to forget.
Furthermore, Mr James, you can share my other satisfaction that you will not be obstructed although, for certainty, if there is further objection, the objector has one more minute to put it.”
One silent minute later, Bond walked from the office and willed the world dead.
Unbidden, Bond stood up. He had not liked the look of Mr Parker and liked the sound of him less. He saw no reason to entertain the smell of the man by sitting next to him. Aware that all eyes followed him, he walked in silence to the window. When he reached it, he felt the pressure of expectation on him. “That,” he said, catching the hoarseness of his voice, “is all I can offer.”
Behind him, he heard Parker. “It’s monstrous…”
Corpse-still, Bond muttered “I agree. But if there are no better ideas, then it is what I will do. What I will have to do.”
“What about the husband?” Mr Anderson asked, quietly.
“We recall him,” said M. “An unfortunate man, a terrible thing to have happened. No blame on him, of course; if the wife has an affair…” Bond looked at his shoes. No need to indulge the old bastard. “We can lose him in the Foreign Office. There may be other reasons to make sure that he is closely supervised, but they are of no relevance to this.”
“And this secretary of hers?” Sensible questions – but, whether or not Anderson was aware that Bond knew his true identity, they were questions such a man should ask.
M sniffed. “I’ve already discussed this with the Foreign Office. I have taken their advice.” Bond knew that it was far more likely to be M dictating their solution for them. “We introduce a completely new staff into the Consulate save for her. We can keep her under observation. I wish to involve this junior clerk… name?”
“Masaniello,” Bond said, dully.
“Yes. I would wish him to keep her close to him and, if it comes to it… well, we can discuss that at the time. I am aware,” M continued, shooting a flash of displeasure at Bond, “that Mr James considers him too inexperienced.” He paused. “I will consult further with Mr James on that.”
Well Rico, thought Bond, at least I tried. But I’m afraid that you’re in now. And there’s no way out once their claws are in you. Poor lad.
Parker cleared his throat. “You appear, gentlemen” he said, unpleasantly, “to have thought of everything.”
“You don’t think it would be wiser simply to bring her in, to persuade her not to do this?”
Bond had hoped the question would not come; but here it was. And now, the most brutal of betrayals. Of course he had wished it could happen, of course he had wished that as the solution. But the look in her eyes, the fervour and determination and … and if they took the orphanage off her, what meaning would she have?
“She wouldn’t listen. I am sure of that, Mr Parker, and I am asking you to take me on trust.”
“You ask an awful lot of that, Mr James.”
Bond could have hit him.
M looked at the three visitors. “This, gentlemen, is where you come in. Or, rather, where your collective departments do not. All we ask is that you are aware of this incident and whilst I am confident that Mr James does not need your positive assistance, I am equally certain that it would greatly assist him for you to ignore what is going to happen.”
The three visitors looked at each other, then collectively at Bond, who stared ahead, unblinking, and then finally at M. Mr Lewis spoke. “What is it you propose?”
M shuffled the tobacco in its pouch, and it appeared to Bond that he was more agitated at whether he could put together another smoke than he was at their conspiring. “I believe that Mr James can tell you.” He did not look up.
Bond cleared his throat, and twisted in his seat, determined to keep as much eye contact with the three men as possible. To break that would be to show uncertainty; deadly.
“It’s like this. I know this woman; I’ve known her for some years.” He ignored M’s cough. “Socially. It’s not important how, why or when. You mentioned the award ceremony, Mr Anderson. That won’t happen. We,” he could feel shame bayoneting him, “we set that up. She believes I had her nominated by the government, that I pulled strings. It’s the sort of thing she needs…the sort of thing she wants…some recognition…” He paused, wondering quite how pathetic that had sounded.
“A trap, then?” The tone of Parker’s voice was unforgiving.
“If you like,” Bond snapped. Then, calmer. “Yes, if you like. But we had to get her away from Italy quickly – you understand that?” He had meant to sound angry; instead he sounded weary.
“Yes,” although it was Anderson rather than Parker.
“The supposed ceremony is tomorrow evening. So I have to do it today or tomorrow. We,” Bond continued, deliberately bringing M into the scheme, “decided on tomorrow, for various reasons, but for that we do need your co-operation.”
No turning away from it now.
Bond took a lung-stretching breath. “There will be a car accident.” He closed his eyes, and hoped that he would wake up. It did not work.
“There will be a car accident,” he found himself repeating, “in the New Forest. That’s why you’re here, Mr Lewis. I expect it to happen sometime between two p.m. and three tomorrow afternoon, and just outside Ringwood. Quite where…you won’t be able to miss it. There will be a fire.”
Lewis coughed. “How do you know this?”
“Because,” and now Bond found his anger, “because, Mr Lewis, I will be the one driving the car and I will be the one starting the fire. Understood? And it will happen at that time because young carefree couple will have had just too much at lunchtime and will have been seen doing so by a number of people; the roads are just murder these days, aren’t they?” His sneer lingered in the air.
Lewis rocked back in his chair, as if Bond had given into a growing temptation and punched him.
“I…yes…but, you’ll need two bodies.”
M coughed an interruption. “Yes. Any progress there, Mr James?”
Bond wondered, as he had done every night since forming the plan, whether it would not simply be easier for everyone that he was the other body in the car.
“That corporal who was poisoned in Aldershot, Sir. Our doctors have finished with the body. I’ll brief you on their conclusions later. Anyway, same height as me, same sort of build. Similar enough all-round for few questions to be asked.”
“And there’s no other way?” asked Mr Lewis, although Bond wondered whether this was more out of concern for his own position than her welfare.
“No. You accept,” Bond asked, and knew it was out of turn, “that something must be done?”
Mr Lewis sighed. “Yes.”
“The baby that was stolen from the orphanage,” Bond continued “died, but not because it had been given anything. Quite the opposite. It was in withdrawal. Had it stayed in the orphanage…” He stopped.
“It might have survived. Chances are it would have.” Bond winced.
Parker coughed. Bond turned his gaze to him. “Well, Mr James… the doctor, I assume there was a doctor, who examined the baby after death – why would he not have noticed anything?”
Bond replied, calmly, trying but failing to detach himself from himself. “I expect that he was looking for signs of something, rather than signs of nothing. A presence, not an absence. That’s why they’ll find nothing to pin on the nurse who stole the baby – she didn’t harm the child. The damage, for want of a better word, was already done.”
“The risk being,” M interrupted, “that the Neopolitan police – or, worse, the local hoodlums - will trace the enquiry back one stage. That, I’m afraid, the government could not tolerate, things being as they are. Not that I have any particular desire to protect this administration over any other, but given what Mr James has disclosed to us, I doubt any government would survive the scandal. And if that’s the case, then the nation as a whole is under threat, not just those in control of it.” M exhaled thick smoke at Mr Parker, lengthily, meaningfully. “However temporary they may prove to be, it is our duty.”
Anderson lit a cigarette. Bond was surprised to see M tolerate it. Still, it was quite a tale. “So,” he muttered, drawing the smoke in, “that’s the situation. Not good. So what’s the solution, gentlemen?”
Not much better, thought Bond.
“That dawned on me when I left Amalfi, Mr Anderson. The ward in the orphanage had been very still, no sound at all. Do you have children, Mr Anderson?” Bond knew the answer would be affirmative – two boys, seven and eleven. “Do you remember what they were like when they were babies?”
“Did they always sleep soundly?”
“God, no.” Anderson attempted a hollow laugh.
“Exactly,” said Bond. “Exactly. All the babies in the ward were silent. That’s because all the babies in the ward had been doped up to the eyeballs. Or, to be accurate, they were all heroin addicts. That’s what she was doing. She told me that the babies were dying and what she was doing was… making it easier for them.” He felt his throat go dry.
In the pattern of the wallpaper of M’s office, he thought he could see her, her eyes aflame…
“The problem,” M started, “was that she was using heroin stolen by her secretary – who may or may not have told her hoodlum friends what was going on. Regardless of that, stolen from the Soviet Union and the Mafia.”
Parker gave a low whistle.
M grunted. “Quite.”
M turned over two of the pages of the docket. “We have a problem with Lady Elizabeth Cheshire. For this information, we are indebted to Mr James. Mr James has established that Lady Elizabeth is working directly contrary to the interests of Her Majesty’s government and, if not stopped, could compromise not simply the government but also the standing of the nation, at home perhaps but most certainly abroad. In fact, it could finish us in Italy for many years.
“It’s potentially very embarrassing. There is a way out. Understand this, however: you are not here to consult; you are here to be informed. However, it is only correct that you should hear the full background. Mr James?”
Bond launched into the heavily expurgated version he had given to M. Even with that, he remembered that the look of grim disapproval on his chief’s face had been wounding.
M motioned with the stem of his pipe along the three visitors. “This gentleman is Mr Anderson. Mr Anderson is with another organisation.” Bond recognised the euphemism, but did not betray the recognition in his brief nod of welcome. “Mr Lewis represents the Hampshire and Dorset Constabulary. Mr Lewis, Mr…James.” Lewis did not react to Bond’s brief nod. “And Mr Parker.” Bond regarded Mr Parker; a sallow, vermin-faced man with a feeble moustache; a politician. “Mr Parker is standing in for the Home Secretary. Gentlemen, this as I say is Mr James. You may refer to me, if you have to, as Mr Brown.”
M pushed forward the open docket. “We can dispense with other pleasantries. This, as I am sure you understand, is not a social gathering. I would ask you also to rid yourself of any preconceptions you may have about the character of Lady Elizabeth Cheshire.”
Bond knew he would be unable to do the same.
“However, I would ask you to declare whether you have had any professional or personal contact with her.” Bond knew the correctness of the question, but felt M’s admonishment sting. But, still, it had to be him who would have to do it. Bond would not allow anyone else. And it would not work without him.
The three men shook their heads. Parker half-raised a hand. “Isn’t she… isn’t she that woman who we’re… the government I mean, who we’re very keen on. Great social works abroad?”
“Something like that,” Bond muttered, under his breath.
M ignored him. “Indeed. Tomorrow evening she is attending a ceremony at The Savoy; an award for promoting child welfare.”
Lewis brightened. “Of course! Read about it on the train up this morning.” Bond raised his eyebrows. God, sometimes the Service was damned good at the cloak-and-dagger stuff. He wondered whether Lewis realised that a solid twenty percent of his newspaper each day was fed in by SIS and MI5 and the Met. The big story on Monday would be another.
That was why they were here, when it came to it.
And now he felt sick.
Sick with what he was about to do, the sensation overwhelming him as ferociously as it had done when he had seen her in the medicine room, the attaché case open and displaying its unmistakeable content, leaning over the little baby with the syringe in her hand, cooing, stroking, wiping its tear away as it reacted – dully, lethargically – to the needle’s prick. Most horrible of all, her expression.
So full of love.
The green light above the office door flashed on. An encouraging smile from M’s secretary did nothing for him as he passed through the double dividing door and left his last attempt at a normal life behind.
M did not look up from the thin folder he was pretending to read. An old trick; he was letting Bond consider the three men sitting in a semi-circle in front of the desk. There was another signal here too; that M believed him completely.
It had taken two weeks to set everything up. There was little of it he could remember; no, there was little of it he wanted to.
Numbed, he had removed his jacket, tossed it carelessly onto a pile of lobster crates, and had run unthinking to the harbour edge. The wall disappeared from beneath his legs and as he tumbled carelessly to crash into the water, he felt all happiness being snatched from him.
For ten minutes, thinking of nothing, refusing to think of anything and weighed down as much by a leadening stomach as the clothes and shoes he still wore, Bond swam, swam to the horizon, never once looking back at the shore and the light of the orphanage window. The sea that only hours before had welcomed him, now chilled him through, his body hardening against it. At each ploughed, fierce, hating stroke, the warming sunrise seemed to stretch further from his grasp, to slip like the water through his fingers. But ultimately, he knew it would be of no matter.
To stretch, even if futile, was better than to stay behind. To drive forwards, to push, even without result…
Hoping that the clothes would drag him down; that he would never have to go back.
But he had to go back. He would always have to go back.
He always did.
And although he would never admit it, the five minutes sitting in the car, the engine idling, the chill sweat falling and the only idea developing, left him colder and more soaked through than the sea could ever have done.
It came to this: she was acting against England, and England expects that every man will do his duty. So now he had to destroy her.
For he had to hate her before she died. Otherwise…
In the moment of lowering himself from the orphanage window and feeling his heels touch the pavement, he had formed no plan beyond two thoughts only. The first was to curse Masaniello, for he had been right: a heart may bleed fire, it may bleed ice.
The second was to curse his own heart entire, for it had switched between the two in a single beat.