SCOUNDREL is for Jackie and Jimmy Lynch
AUGUST 1, 1990 WAS MY FORTIETH BIRTHDAY. SOPHIE, MY lover for the past three years, left me for a younger man, the cat fell sick, and the next morning Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Welcome to the best years of my life.
Three weeks later Shafiq asked if I could deliver a boat from the Mediterranean to America. Hannah, my part-time secretary, had taken Shafiq’s telephone call and late that afternoon she came to the fishing harbor to give me the day’s news.
“Who called?” At first I thought I must have misheard her. I was working in a trawler’s engine room with the motor going. “Who called?” I shouted up through the open hatch again.
“Shafiq.” Hannah shrugged. “No other name, just Shafiq. He said you know him.”
I knew him all right, knew him well enough to wonder just what the hell was coming next. Shafiq! For God’s sake! “He wanted what?”
“He wants a boat delivered.”
“He doesn’t know.”
“From where in the Mediterranean? France? Spain? Italy? Cyprus? Greece?”
“Just the Mediterranean. He said he couldn’t be more specific.”
“And I’m to deliver it where?”
Hannah smiled. “Just America.”
I shut off the engine. I had been testing the trawler’s hydraulic pumps, making sure that some scumbag hadn’t lowered the pressure by half a ton to disguise a bad valve or a weak hose. I waited for the noise to die away, then looked up at Hannah. “What kind of boat?”
“He doesn’t know.” She laughed. Hannah had a nice laugh, but since Sophie had taken off every woman seemed to have a nice laugh. “I shall tell him no,” she said, “yes?”
“Tell him yes, yes.”
“Tell him yes.”
Hannah adopted the patient look she used when she was trying to save me from myself. “Yes?”
“Yes, oui, ja, sí. That’s what we’re in business for.” Or at least that was what my letterhead said: Nordsee Yacht Delivery, Services and Surveying, Sole Proprietor, Paul Shanahan, Nieuwpoort, Belgium; though in the last few years the servicing and surveying had taken over from the delivery.
“But, Paul! You don’t know when or how or what or where! How can I commit you to something so stupid!”
“When he phones back, tell him the answer is yes.”
Hannah uttered a very Flemish noise, a kind of glottal grunt which I had learned denoted a practical person’s scorn for an impractical fool. She turned a page in her notebook. “And a woman called Kathleen Donovan called. An American. She wants to see you. She sounds nice.”
Oh, Christ, I thought, but what is this? A man turns forty and suddenly his past comes back to haunt him, and I had a swift filthy image of Roisin’s blood on the yellow stone, and I thought of betrayal and of unhappiness and of love, and I hoped to God that if Roisin’s sister was looking for me that she never, ever found me. “Tell her no,” I said.
“But she says—”
“I don’t care what she says. I’ve never heard of her and I don’t want to see her.” I could not explain any of it to Hannah who was so very practical and so very married to her plump policeman. “And tell Shafiq I want to know why.”
“You want to know why?” Hannah frowned at me. “Why what?”
“Ask him why.”
“OK! I’ll ask!” She threw up her hands, turned, and walked along the quay. “I think the cat has worms!” she called back.
“Give it a pill!”
“It’s your cat!”
“Please give it a pill.”
“OK!” She gave the finger, not to me, but to one of the fishermen who had whistled at her. Then she waved to me and walked out of sight.
I went back to work, surveying a trawler that was being sold across the North Sea to Scotland, but my mind was hardly on the boat’s hull or its engine or its hydraulics, instead I was wondering why, out of nowhere and on the very same day, the ghosts of danger past and love betrayed had come back to haunt me. And, if I was honest, to excite me too. Life had become dull, predictable, placid, but now the ghosts had stirred.
I had waited four years for Shafiq to remember me, to summon me back to the darker paths. Four years. And I was ready.
“It has been four years, Paul! Four years!” Shafiq, indolent, thin, kind, sly and middle-aged, sat on a deep, cushion-rich sofa. He had taken a suite in the Georges V in Paris and wanted me to admire his opulence. He was also in an ebullient mood, and no wonder, for Shafiq loved Paris, loved France, and the more the French hated the Arabs, the more Shafiq approved of Gallic good taste. Shafiq was a Palestinian who lived in Libya where he worked for Colonel Qaddafi’s Centre to Resist Imperialism, Racism, Backwardness and Fascism. At first I had refused to believe any such organization existed, but it did, and Shafiq was on its staff, which was doubtless why he had such a taste for European decadence.
“So what do you want?” I asked him sourly.
“I have never known Paris so hot! Thank God for the invention of air-conditioning.” As usual we spoke in French. “Have a cake, please. The mille-feuille is exquisite.”
“What do you want?”
Shafiq ignored the question, instead opening a small, brightly enamelled tin of cachous and slipping one under his tongue. “I am pretending to be a Greek. I have a diplomatic passport even, look!”
I ignored both the fake passport and Shafiq’s delight in possessing it. Shafiq’s contribution to resisting imperialism, racism, backwardness and fascism was to act as a messenger between Libya and whatever terrorist groups were the flavor of Colonel Qaddafi’s month. At first sight he seemed an unlikely secret agent for he was too childlike, too flamboyant and too likeable, but they were perhaps the very qualities that had let him survive so long, because it was impossible to imagine a man as risible as Shafiq being associated with the polluted wellsprings of political evil. “What do you want of me?” I asked him again. Whatever he wanted I would probably give him, but after four years I had to play a reluctant role.
“You would like a Gauloise? Here! Take the pack, Paul.” He tossed the cigarettes to me.
“I’ve given up. What the hell do you want?”
“You’ve given up smoking! That’s wonderful, Paul, really wonderful! The doctors say I should give up, but what do they know? My brother-in-law is a doctor, did I ever tell you that? He smokes forty a day, sometimes fifty, and he’s fit as, what do you say? A fiddle! As a fiddle! You’d like some tea?”
“What the hell do you want, Shafiq?”
“I want you to deliver a boat to America, of course, just as I told your secretary. Is she beautiful?”
“As a rose in morning dew, as a peach blossom, as a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. What kind of a boat? From where? To where? When?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Oh, great! That’s really helpful, Shafiq.” I leaned back in my overstuffed armchair. “It’s your boat?”
“It is not mine, no.” He lit a cigarette, then waved it vaguely about as if to indicate that the national boat belonged to someone else, anyone else, no one of importance. “How is your love life?”
“It doesn’t exist. I’ve just been junked for a married French pharmacist. I got custody of the cat. Whose boat is it?”
“You lost your girlfriend?” Shafiq was instantly concerned for me.
“Whose boat is it, Shafiq?”
“It belongs to friends.” Again he gestured with the cigarette to show that the ownership was unimportant. “How long will it take you?”