The Ghost – Robert Harris
Heathrow the next morning looked like one of those bad science fiction movies “set in the near future” after the security forces have taken over the state. Two armored personnel carriers were parked outside the terminal. A dozen men with Rambo machine guns and bad haircuts patrolled inside. Vast lines of passengers queued to be frisked and X-rayed, carrying their shoes in one hand and their pathetic toiletries in a clear plastic bag in the other. Travel is sold as freedom, but we were about as free as lab rats. This is how they’ll manage the next holocaust, I thought, as I shuffled forward in my stockinged feet: they’ll simply issue us with air tickets and we’ll do whatever we’re told.
[…] After that I shut up for a while, I could see why Ruth didn’t like her. She was a shade too clever and several shades too blonde for comfort, especially from a wife’s point of view.
I knew Roy Quigley fairly well, well enough to know he disapproved of me. He must have been about ﬁfty, tall and tweedy. In a happier era he would have smoked a pipe and offered tiny advances to minor academics over large lunches in Soho. Now his midday meal was a plastic tray of salad taken at his desk overlooking the M4, and he received his orders direct from the head of sales and marketing, a girl of about sixteen. He had three children in private schools he couldn’t afford. As the price of survival he’d actually been obliged to start taking an interest in popular culture, to wit, the lives of various footballers, supermodels, and foulmouthed comedians whose names he pronounced carefully and whose customs he studied in the tabloids with scholarly detachment, as if they were remote Micronesian tribespeople.
‘I have to tell you‘ he said, as we rose to the penthouse floor, that I don’t think you’re the right man for this assignment.’
‘Then it’s a good thing it’s not your decision, Roy.’
Oh yes, I had Quigley’s measure right enough. His title was UK Group Editor-in-Chief, which meant he had all the authority of a dead cat.
‘So, ‘ said Ruth, ‘how bad is it?’
‘You haven’t read it?’
‘Not all of it.’
‘Well’, I said politely, ‘it needs some work.’
The word Hiroshima floated briefly into my mind.
She had buttoned her jacket against the chilly dusk, and was smoking in that curious noli me tangere way that a certain kind of woman does, with one arm held loosely against her waist and the other – the one with the hand holding the cigarette – slanted across her breast. The fragrant smell of the burning tobacco in the open air made me crave a cigarette myself. It would have been my first in more than a decade, and it would have started me back on forty a day for sure – but still, at that moment, if she’d offered me one, I would have taken it.
[I] followed Duc the gardener along the front of the house to the weathered wooden cubes that served as staff accommodation and outbuildings.
‘You must have to work hard here,’ I said, ‘to keep it looking so good.’
Duc kept his eyes on the ground.
‘Soil bad. Wind bad. Rain bad. Salt bad. Shit.’
After that there didn’t seem much else to say on the horticultural front, so I kept quiet.
I drained the glass in thirty seconds. White wine. What is the point of it? I picked up the bottle and studied the label. Apparently the vines were grown in soil treated in harmony with the lunar circle, using manure buried in a cow’s horn and flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder. It sounded like the sort of suspicious activity people quite right used to be burned as witches.