It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.
I thought he was an American. He looked like an American--tall, with the loose, light suit, the narrow tie and button-down collar, the smooth, old-young, young-old face and the crew cut. He spoke like an American, too; or at least like a German who has lived in America for a long time. Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American; plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it. I didn't see his passport.
He arrived at the Athens airport on a plane from Vienna. He could have come from New York or London or Frankfurt or Moscow and arrived by that plane--or just from Vienna. It was impossible to tell. There were no hotel labels on the luggage. I just assumed that he came from New York. It was a mistake anyone might have made.
This will not do. I can already hear myself protesting too much, as if I had something to be ashamed of; but I am simply trying to explain what happened, to be completely frank and open.
I really did not suspect that he was not what he seemed. Naturally, I approached him at the airport. The car-hire business is only a temporary sideline with me, of course--I am a journalist by profession--but Nicki had been complaining about needing more new clothes, and the rent was due on the flat that week. I needed money, and this man looked as if he had some. Is it a crime to earn money? The way some people go on you would think it was. The law is the law and I am certainly not complaining, but what I can't stand is all the humbug and hypocrisy. If a man goes to the red-light district on his own, nobody says anything. But if he wants to do another chap, a friend or an acquaintance, a good turn by showing him the way to the best house, everyone starts screaming blue murder. I have no patience with it. If there is one thing I pride myself on it is my common sense--that and my sense of humor.
My correct name is Arthur Simpson.
No! I said I would be completely frank and open and I am going to be. My correct full name is Arthur Abdel Simpson. The Abdel is because my mother was Egyptian. In fact, I was born in Cairo. But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British.
My father rose from the ranks. He was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Buffs when I was born; but in 1916 he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Quartermaster in the Army Service Corps. We were living in officers' married quarters in Ismailia when he was killed a year later. I was too young at the time to be told the details. I thought, naturally, that he must have been killed by the Turks; but Mum told me later that he had been run over by an army lorry as he was walking home one night from the officers' mess.
Mum had his pension, of course, but someone told her to write to the Army Benevolent Association for the Sons of Fallen Officers, and they got me into the British school in Cairo. She still kept on writing to them about me, though. When I was nine, they said that if there were some relative in England I could live with, they would pay for my schooling there. There was a married sister of father's living at Hither Green in South-East London. When the Benevolent Association said that they would pay twelve-and-six a week for my keep, she agreed to have me. This was a great relief to Mum because it meant that she could marry Mr. Hafiz, who had never liked me after the day I caught them in bed together and told the Imam about it. Mr. Hafiz was in the restaurant business and was as fat as a pig. It was disgusting for a man of his age to be in bed with Mum.
I went to England on an army troop ship in care of the sickbay matron. I was glad to go. I have never liked being where I am not wanted. Most of the men in the sick bay were V.D. cases, and I used to listen to them talking. I picked up quite a lot of useful information, before the matron, who was (there is no other word) an old bitch, found out about it and handed me over to the P.T. instructor for the rest of the voyage. My aunt in Hither Green was a bitch, too, but I was wanted there all right. She was married to a bookkeeper who spent half his time out of work. My twelve-and-six a week came in very handy. She didn't dare get too bitchy. Every so often, a man from the Benevolent Association would come down to see how I was getting on. If I had told him the tale they would have taken me away. Like most boys of that age, I suppose I was what is known nowadays as "a bit of a handful."
The school was on the Lewisham side of Blackheath and had a big board outside with gold lettering on it:
CORAM'S GRAMMAR SCHOOL
For the Sons of Gentlemen
On top of the board there was the school coat of arms and motto, Mens aequa in arduis
. The Latin master said it was from Horace; but the English master liked to translate it in Kipling's words: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . you'll be a Man, my son!"
It was not exactly a public school like Eton or Winchester; there were no boarders, we were all day boys; but it was run on the same lines. Your parents, or (as in my case) guardian, had to pay to send you there. There were a few scholarship boys from the local council schools--I think we had to have them because of the Board of Education subsidy--but never more than twenty or so in the whole school. In 1920 a new Head was appointed. His name was Brush and we nicknamed him "The Bristle." He'd been a master at a big public school and so he knew how things should be done. He made a lot of changes. After he came, we played rugger instead of soccer, sat in forms instead of in classes, and were taught how to speak like gentlemen. One or two of the older masters got the sack, which was a good thing; and The Bristle made all the masters wear their university gowns at prayers in the morning. As he said, Coram's was a school with a good tradition, and although we might not be as old as Eton or Winchester, we were a good deal older than Brighton or Clifton. All the swotting in the world was no good if you didn't have character and tradition. He made us stop reading trash like the Gem
and turn to worthwhile books by authors like Stevenson and Talbot Baines Reed.
I was too young when my father was killed to have known him well; but one or two of his pet sayings have always remained in my memory; perhaps because I heard him repeat them so often to Mum or to his army friends. One, I remember, was "Never volunteer for anything," and another was "Bullshit baffles brains."
Hardly the guiding principles of an officer and a gentleman, you say? Well, I am not so sure about that; but I won't argue. I can only say that they were the guiding principles of a practical, professional soldier, and that at Coram's they worked. For example, I found out very early on that nothing annoyed the masters more than untidy handwriting. With some of them, in fact, the wrong answer to a question neatly written would get almost as many marks as the right answer badly written or covered with smears and blots. I have always written very neatly. Again, when a master asked something and then said "Hands up who knows," you could always put your hand up even if you did not know, as long as you let the eager beavers put their hands up first, and as long as you smiled. Smiling--pleasantly, I mean, not grinning or smirking--was very important at all times. The masters did not bother about you so much if you looked as if you had a clear conscience.
I got on fairly well with the other chaps. Because I had been born in Egypt, of course, they called me "Wog," but, as I was fair-haired like my father, I did not mind that. My voice broke quite early, when I was twelve. After a while, I started going up to Hilly Fields at night with a fifth-former named Jones iv, who was fifteen, and we used to pick up girls--"square-pushing," as they say in the army. I soon found that some of the girls didn't mind a bit if you put your hand up their skirts, and even did a bit more. Sometimes we would stay out late. That meant that I used to have to get up early and do my homework, or make my aunt write an excuse note for me to take to school saying that I had been sent to bed after tea with a feverish headache. If the worse came to the worst, I could always crib from a boy named Reese and do the written work in the lavatory. He had very bad acne and never minded if you cribbed from him; in fact I think he liked it. But you had to be careful. He was one of the bookworms and usually got everything right. If you cribbed from him word for word you risked getting full marks. With me, that would make the master suspicious. I got ten out of ten for a chemistry paper once, and the master caned me for cheating. I had never really liked the man and I got my revenge later by pouring a test tube of sulphuric acid (conc.) over the saddle of his bicycle; but I have always remembered the lesson that incident taught me. Never try to pretend that you're better than you are. I think I can fairly say that I never have.
Of course, an English public-school education is mainly designed to build character, to give a boy a sense of fair play and sound values, teach him to take the rough with the smooth, and make him look and sound like a gentleman.
Coram's at least did those things for me; and, looking back, I suppose that I should be grateful. I can't say that I enjoyed the process though. Fighting, for instance: that was supposed to be very manly, and if you did not enjoy it they called you "cowardy custard." I don't think it is cowardly not to want someone to hit you with his fist and make your nose bleed. The trouble was that when I used to hit back I always sprained my thumb or grazed my knuckles. In the end, I found the best way to hit back was with a satchel, especially if you had a pen or the sharp edge of a ruler sticking out through the flap; but I have always disliked violence of any kind.
Almost as much as I dislike injustice. My last term at Coram's, which I should have been able to enjoy because it was the last, was completely spoiled.
Jones iv was responsible for that. He had left school by then, and was working for his father, who owned a garage, but I still went up to Hilly Fields with him sometimes. One evening he showed me a long poem typed out on four foolscap pages. A customer at the garage had given it to him. It was called The Enchantment and was supposed to have been written by Lord Byron. It began:Upon one dark and sultry day,
As on my garret bed I lay,
My thoughts, for I was dreaming half,
Were broken by a silvery laugh,
Which fell upon my startled ear,
Full loud and clear and very near.
Well, it turned out that the laugh was coming through a hole in the wall behind his bed, so he looked through the hole.A youth and maid were in the room,
And each in youth's most beauteous bloom.
It then went on to describe what the youth and maid did together for the next half hour--very poetically, of course, but in detail. It was really hot stuff.
I made copies and let some of the chaps at school read it. Then I charged them fourpence a time to be allowed to copy it out for themselves. I was making quite a lot of money, when some fourth-form boy left a copy in the pocket of his cricket blazer and his mother found it. Her husband sent it with a letter of complaint to The Bristle. He began questioning the boys one by one to find out who had started it, and, of course, he eventually got back to me. I said I had been given it by a boy who had left the term before--The Bristle couldn't touch him--but I don't think he believed me. He sat tapping his desk with his pencil and saying "filthy smut" over and over again. He looked very red in the face, almost as if he were embarrassed. I remember wondering if he could be a bit "queer." Finally, he said that as it was my last term he would not expel me, but that I was not to associate with any of the younger boys for the rest of my time there. He did not cane me or write to the Benevolent Association, which was a relief. But it was a bad experience all the same and I was quite upset. In fact, I think that was the reason I failed my matriculation.
At Coram's they made a fetish out of passing your matric. Apparently, you couldn't get a respectable job in a bank or an insurance company without it. I did not want a job in a bank or an insurance company--Mr. Hafiz had died and Mum wanted me to go back and learn the restaurant business--but it was a disappointment all the same. I think that if The Bristle had been more broad-minded and understanding, not made me feel as if I had committed some sort of crime, things would have been different. I was a sensitive boy and I felt that Coram's had somehow let me down. That was the reason I never applied to join the Old Coramians Club.
Excerpted from The Light of Day by Eric Ambler. Copyright © 2004 by Eric Ambler. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.