JANE SPREAD a patched white cloth on Ellis's tiny table and laid two places with an assortment of battered cutlery. She found a bottle of Fleurie in the cupboard under the sink, and opened it. She was tempted to taste it, then decided to wait for Ellis. She put out glasses, salt and pepper, mustard and paper napkins. She wondered whether to start cooking. No, it was better to leave it to him.

She did not like Ellis's room. It was bare, cramped and impersonal. She had been quite shocked when she first saw it. She had been dating this warm, relaxed, mature man, and she had expected him to live in a place that expressed his personality, an attractive, comfortable apartment containing mementos of a past rich in experience. But you would never guess that the man who lived here had been married, had fought in a war, had taken LSD, had captained his school football team. The cold white walls were decorated with a few hastily chosen posters. The china came from junk shops and the cooking pots were cheap tinware. There were no inscriptions in the paperback volumes of poetry on the bookshelf. He kept his jeans and sweaters in a plastic suitcase under the creaky bed. Where were his old school reports, the photographs of his nephews and nieces, his treasured copy of Heartbreak Hotel, his souvenir penknife from Boulogne or Niagara Falls, the teak salad bowl everybody gets from their parents sooner or later? The room contained nothing really important, none of those things one keeps not for what they are but for what they represent, no part of his soul.

Advertisement

It was the room of a withdrawn man, a secretive man, a man who would never share his innermost thoughts with anyone. Gradually, and with terrible sadness, Jane had come to realize that Ellis was like that, like his room, cold and secretive.

It was incredible. He was such a self-confident man. He walked with his head high, as if he had never been afraid of anyone in his life. In bed he was utterly uninhibited, totally at ease with his sexuality. He would do anything and say anything, without anxiety or hesitation or shame. Jane had never known a man like this. But there had been too many times - in bed, or in restaurants, or just walking on the street - when she had been laughing with him, or listening to him talk, or watching the skin around his eyes crinkle as he thought hard, or hugging his warm body, only to find that he had suddenly turned off. In those switched-off moods he was no longer loving, no longer amusing, no longer thoughtful or considerate or gentlemanly or compassionate. He made her feel excluded, a stranger, an intruder into his private world. It was like the sun going behind a cloud.

She knew she was going to have to leave him. She loved him to distraction, but it seemed he could not love her the same way. He was thirty-three years old, and if he had not learned the art of intimacy by now, he never would.

She sat on the sofa and began to read The Observer, which she had bought from an international newsstand in the Boulevard Raspail on her way over. There was a report from Afghanistan on the front page. It sounded like a good place to go to forget Ellis.

-- Advertisement --

The idea had appealed to her immediately. Although she loved Paris, and her job was at least varied, she wanted more: experience, adventure, and a chance to strike a blow for freedom. She was not afraid. Jean-Pierre said the doctors were considered too valuable to be sent into the combat zone. There was a risk of being hit by a stray bomb or caught in a skirmish, but it was probably no worse than the danger of being run down by a Parisian motorist. She was intensely curious about the lifestyle of the Afghan rebels. "What do they eat there?" she had asked Jean-Pierre. "What do they wear? Do they live in tents? Do they have toilets?"

"No toilets," he had replied. "No electricity. No roads. No wine. No cars. No central heating. No dentists. No postmen. No phones. No restaurants. No advertisements. No Coca-Cola. No weather forecasts, no stock market reports, no decorators, no social workers, no lipstick, no Tampax, no fashions, no dinner parties, no taxi ranks, no bus queues - "

"Stop!" she had interrupted him: he could go on like that for hours. "They must have buses and taxis."

"Not in the countryside. I'm going to a region called Five Lions Valley, a rebel stronghold in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was primitive even before the Russians bombed it."

Jane was quite sure she could live happily without plumbing or lipstick or weather forecasts. She suspected he was underestimating the danger, even outside the combat zone; but somehow that did not deter her. Her mother would have hysterics, of course. Her father, if he were still alive, would have said: "Good luck, Janey." He had understood the importance of doing something worthwhile with one's life. Although he had been a good doctor, he had never made any money, because wherever they lived - Nassau, Cairo, Singapore, but mostly Rhodesia - he would always treat poor people free, so they had come to him in crowds, and had driven away the fee-paying customers.

Her reverie was disturbed by a footfall on the stairs. She had not read more than a few lines of the newspaper, she realized. She cocked her head, listening. It did not sound like Ellis's step. Nevertheless, there was a tap at the door.

Jane put down her paper and opened the door. There stood Jean-Pierre. He was almost as surprised as she was.

They stared at one another in silence for a moment. Jane said: "You look guilty. Do I?"

"Yes," he said, and he grinned.

"I was just thinking about you. Come in."

He stepped inside and glanced around. "Ellis not here?"

"I'm expecting him soon. Have a seat."

Jean-Pierre lowered his long body onto the sofa. Jane thought, not for the first time, that he was probably the most beautiful man she had ever met. His face was perfectly regular in shape, with a high forehead, a strong, rather aristocratic nose, liquid brown eyes, and a sensual mouth partly hidden by a full, dark-brown beard with stray flashes of auburn in the moustache. His clothes were cheap but carefully chosen, and he wore them with a nonchalant elegance that Jane herself envied.

She liked him a lot. His great fault was that he thought too well of himself; but in this he was so naive as to be disarming, like a boastful child. She liked his idealism and his dedication to medicine. He had enormous charm. He also had a manic imagination which could sometimes be very funny: sparked by some absurdity, perhaps just a slip of the tongue, he would launch into a fanciful monologue which could go on for ten or fifteen minutes. When someone had quoted a remark made by Jean-Paul Sartre about soccer, Jean-Pierre had spontaneously given a commentary on a football match as it might have been described by an existentialist philosopher. Jane had laughed until it hurt. People said that his gaiety had its reverse side, in moods of black depression, but Jane had never seen any evidence of that.

"Have some of Ellis's wine," she said, picking up the bottle from the table.

"No, thanks."

"Are you rehearsing for life in a Muslim country?"

"Not especially."

He was looking very solemn. "What's the matter?" she asked.

"I need to have a serious talk with you," he said.

"We had it, three days ago, don't you remember?" she said flippantly. "You asked me to leave my boyfriend and go to Afghanistan with you - an offer few girls could resist."

"Be serious."

"All right. I still haven't made up my mind."

"Jane. I've discovered something terrible about Ellis."

She looked at him speculatively. What was coming? Would he invent a story, tell a lie, in order to persuade her to go with him? She thought not. "Okay, what?"

"He's not what he pretends to be," said Jean-Pierre.

He was being terribly melodramatic. "There's no need to speak in a voice like an undertaker. What do you mean?"

"He's not a penniless poet. He works for the American government."

Jane frowned. "For the American government?" Her first thought was that Jean-Pierre had got the wrong end of the stick. "He gives English lessons to some French people who work for the U.S. government - "

"I don't mean that. He spies on radical groups. He's an agent. He works for the CIA."

Jane burst out laughing. "You're absurd! Did you think you could make me leave him by telling me that?"

"It's true, Jane."

"It's not true. Ellis couldn't be a spy. Don't you think I'd know? I've been practically living with him for a year."

"But you haven't, though, have you?"

"It makes no difference. I know him." Even while she spoke Jane was thinking: It could explain a lot. She did not really know Ellis. But she knew him well enough to be sure that he was not base, mean, treacherous and just plain evil.

"It's all over town," Jean-Pierre was saying. "Rahmi Coskun was arrested this morning and everyone says Ellis was responsible."

"Why was Rahmi arrested?"

Jean-Pierre shrugged. "Subversion, no doubt. Anyway, Raoul Clermont is running around town trying to find Ellis and somebody wants revenge."

"Oh, Jean-Pierre, it's laughable," said Jane. She suddenly felt very warm. She went to the window and threw it open. As she glanced down at the street she saw Ellis's blond head ducking into the front door. "Well," she said to Jean-Pierre, "here he comes. Now you're going to have to repeat this ludicrous story in front of him." She heard Ellis's step on the stairs.

"I intend to," said Jean-Pierre. "Why do you think I am here? I came to warn him that they're after him."

Jane realized that Jean-Pierre was actually sincere: he really believed this story. Well, Ellis would soon set him straight.

The door opened and Ellis walked in.

He looked very happy, as if he were bursting with good news, and when she saw his round, smiling face with its broken nose and penetrating blue eyes, Jane's heart leaped with guilt to think she had been flirting with Jean-Pierre.

Ellis stopped in the doorway, surprised to see Jean-Pierre. His smile faded a little. "Hello, you two," he said. He closed the door behind him and locked it, as was his habit. Jane had always thought that an eccentricity, but now it occurred to her that it was what a spy would do. She pushed the thought out of her mind.

Jean-Pierre spoke first. "They're on to you, Ellis. They know. They're coming after you."

Jane looked from one to the other. Jean-Pierre was taller than Ellis, but Ellis was broad-shouldered and deep-chested. They stood looking at one another like two cats sizing each other up.

Jane put her arms around Ellis, kissed him guiltily and said: "Jean-Pierre has been told some absurd story about you being a CIA spy."

Jean-Pierre was leaning out of the window, scanning the street below. Now he turned back to face him. "Tell her, Ellis."

"Where did you get this idea?" Ellis asked him.

"It's all around town."

"And who, exactly, did you hear it from?" asked Ellis in a steely voice.

"Raoul Clermont."

Ellis nodded. Switching into English, he said: "Jane, would you sit down?"

"I don't want to sit down," she said irritably.

"I have something to tell you," he said.

It couldn't be true, it couldn't. Jane felt panic rise in her throat. "Then tell me," she said, "and stop asking me to sit down!"

Ellis glanced at Jean-Pierre. "Would you leave us?" he said in French.

Jane began to feel angry. "What are you going to tell me? Why won't you simply say that Jean-Pierre is wrong? Tell me you're not a spy, Ellis, before I go crazy!"

"It's not that simple," said Ellis.

"It is simple!" She could no longer keep the hysterical note out of her voice. "He says that you're a spy, that you work for the American government, and that you've been lying to me, continuously and shamelessly and treacherously, ever since I met you. Is that true? Is that true or not? Well?"

Ellis sighed. "I guess it's true."

Jane felt she would explode. "You bastard!" she screamed. "You fucking bastard!"

Ellis's face was set like stone. "I was going to tell you today," he said.

There was a knock at the door. They both ignored it. "You've been spying on me and all my friends!" Jane yelled. "I feel so ashamed."

"My work here is finished," Ellis said. "I don't need to lie to you anymore."

"You won't get the chance. I never want to see you again."

The knocking came again, and Jean-Pierre said in French: "There's someone at the door."

Ellis said: "You don't mean that - that you don't want to see me again,"

"You just don't understand what you've done to me, do you?" she said.

Jean-Pierre said: "Open the damn door, for God's sake!"

Jane muttered: "Jesus Christ," and stepped to the door. She unlocked it and opened it. There stood a big, broad-shouldered man in a green corduroy jacket with a rip in the sleeve. Jane had never seen him before. She said: "What the hell do you want?" Then she saw that he had a gun in his hand.

The next few seconds seemed to pass very slowly.

Jane realized, in a flash, that if Jean-Pierre had been right about Ellis being a spy then probably he was also right about somebody wanting revenge; and that in the world Ellis secretly inhabited, "revenge" really could mean a knock at the door and a man with a gun.

She opened her mouth to scream.

The man hesitated for a fraction of a second. He looked surprised, as if he had not expected to see a woman. His eyes went from Jane to Jean-Pierre and back: he knew that Jean-Pierre was not his target. But he was confused because he could not see Ellis, who was hidden by the half-open door.

Instead of screaming, Jane tried to slam the door.

As she swung it toward the gunman, he saw what she was doing and stuck his foot in the way. The door hit his shoe and bounced back. But in the act of stepping forward he had spread his arms, for balance, and now his gun was pointing up into the corner of the ceiling.

He's going to kill Ellis, Jane thought. He's going to kill Ellis.

She threw herself at the gunman, beating his face with her fists, for suddenly, although she hated Ellis, she did not want him to die.

The man was distracted for only a fraction of a second. With one strong arm he hurled Jane aside. She fell heavily, landing in a sitting position, bruising the base of her spine.

She saw what happened next with terrible clarity.

The arm that had shoved her aside came back and flung the door wide. As the man swung his gun hand around, Ellis came at him with the bottle of wine raised high above his head. The gun went off as the bottle came down, and the shot coincided with the sound of glass breaking.

Jane stared, horrified, at the two men.

Then the gunman slumped, and Ellis remained standing, and she realized that the shot had missed.

Ellis bent down and snatched the gun from the man's hand.

Jane got to her feet with an effort.

"Are you all right?" Ellis asked her.

"Alive," she said.

He turned to Jean-Pierre. "How many on the street?"

Jean-Pierre glanced out of the window. "None."

Ellis looked surprised. "They must be concealed." He pocketed the gun and went to his bookcase. "Stand back," he said, and hurled it to the floor.

Behind it was a door.

Ellis opened the door.

He looked at Jane for a long moment, as if he had something to say but could not find the words. Then he stepped through the door and was gone.

After a moment Jane walked slowly over to the secret door and looked through. There was another studio flat, sparsely furnished and dreadfully dusty, as if it had not been occupied for a year. There was an open door and, beyond it, a staircase.

She turned back and looked into Ellis's room. The gunman lay on the floor, out cold in a puddle of wine. He had tried to kill Ellis, right here in this room: already it seemed unreal. It all seemed unreal: Ellis being a spy; Jean-Pierre knowing about it; Rahmi being arrested; and Ellis's escape route.

He had gone. I never want to see you again, she had said to him just a few seconds ago. It seemed that her wish would be granted.

She heard footsteps on the stairs.

She raised her gaze from the gunman and looked at Jean-Pierre. He, too, seemed stunned. After a moment he crossed the room to her and put his arms around her. She slumped on his shoulder and burst into tears.

-- Advertisement --