Tales from the back of the eyelids


"What do you want to be?"

This question makes any young person who has just finished studying, and who does not know the answer, feel uncomfortable. Everyone asks it; everyone expects a confident reply. How can one know what one wants to be, if there has never been a yearning from within to be something in particular? Adult life is just beginning. Anything can happen. What does it have to do with anyone else anyway? "I don't know; just leave me alone!" - should be the answer. That, however, even though truthful, never satisfies anyone.

"Well, what do you want to be?" Reginald, my boss, asked me again, this time sounding irritated. I had no choice: I had to give him a straight reply. I wanted to look him directly in the eye and speak with self-assurance. Instead I looked down and mumbled.

"I think I'd like to be a Henry," I said, my fingers pulling at my collar, which felt too tight.

"A Henry?" he said in astonishment. "You can't be a Henry. Henries need years of experience." Reginald, who was sitting in the passenger's seat next to the driver, looked out of the window with an exasperated expression on his face. He turned to my colleague, who was sitting beside me on the back seat of the car, and asked, in a kindly way:

"And what about you?"

"I want to be a Sarah," she said with confidence.

"Excellent!" he exclaimed and clapped his hands together gleefully. "A Sarah! Perfect! Yes, you'll be a perfect Sarah. Brilliant!"

I looked at Reginald glumly. Excellent? Perfect? Brilliant? What did he mean? All right, she would be a good Sarah and she probably was on the correct path to a successful career. But you would have thought he had found another Mata Hari by the way he was getting ecstatic.

Reginald turned to me again. "Come on, be imaginative! Think creatively!" He said. "I think you should be a...a..." He looked at the the doorhandle for a moment. "Yes!" he said suddenly, "you should be a Gilbert."

"A Gilbert?" I said in dismay. I had wanted to continue and tell him all the reasons why I would not be a good Gilbert, but I decided not to when I saw that an unpleasant frown was gathering on his forehead. "Yes, I think I could be a Gilbert," I said instead, unconvinced.

"Well decided!" Reginald congratulated. "You'll make a very good Gilbert."

We were on the way to the the ambassador's residence. It was late in the evening and it was dark. There was going to be reception, as usual, to which virtually the whole diplomatic community of the capital had been invited. The residence was a large and opulent Baroque building on a hill, not far from the centre of the city. It was surrounded by its own private park which was enclosed by a high and well-guarded wall. Our limosine pulled up to the wrought iron gates to the park entrance, which opened up automatically before us. We drove on, up a winding tarmacked road through a copse. When the copse finished the road levelled out and soon we came to the French garden at the front of the residence. The garden had an artificial pond, in the middle of which was a statue of a naked woman holding a vase which squirted water.

Reginald turned around again to Sarah and me before we got out of the car. "You know your brief," he said. "Remember, do not reveal anything! Good luck to you both. Do your best and go to it!"

The three of us walked up the steps to the entrance. After being greeted by the host and hostess, we separated as planned. I went through the double doors at the end of the reception area and found myself in a large oval room. The room had no furniture in it but was half-full of animated people - ladies with tiaras and gentlemen in suits with waistcoats - chatting to each other in little circles. Between them fluttered white-jacketed waiters carrying trays with drinks or canapés. The ceiling above us was stuccoed with dancing cherubins and various kinds of fruit. From its centre hung an enormous crystal chandelier.

I recognised many of the people: on the left the Danish Ambassador's wife was talking to the Interior Minister; close to them were the Speaker of the British House of Commons and her husband engaged in an earnest debate with the Korean Chargé d'Affaires; on the other side of the room, in a group of six people, the Chairman of Parliament glowered unpleasantly at the Defence Minister, who, in contrast, looked cheerful and unpeturbed. The star of the evening was the Secretary General of the United Nations, who was standing under the chandelier in the middle of a larger group of people, calming answering questions being thrown at him from all sides. He was on a brief visit to the country.

Seeing as there was not much chance of succeeding with the Secretary General, I approached the group with the Chairman of Parliament and the Defence Minister. Apparently the Chairman was furious at the Minister, because the Minister had cast doubt on a hunting story the Chairman had just told. The Chairman was turning pink and was struggling to suppress an outburst of rage: his story had been ruined and people in the group had begun to talk of other things. For me, though, the Defence Minister was much more interesting. But how could I introduce myself? How could I imperceptibly weave the topic of defence cuts into the conversation?

I was considering my strategy, hovering outside the group with a glass of wine in my hand, when I noticed a dark-haired woman near the double doors, studying me intently. She made a beeline for me.

"Hello. I wonder if I know you from somewhere? Your face seems familiar." She spoke with an unplaceable foreign accent. Her sharp, dark features could have come from anywhere from Latin America to Asia. She looked as if she was about thirty-five years old and I sensed that she was well-practised in the art of diplomacy.

"I don't think so," I said. "I've only been in the country a month." I stopped abruptly. I could not believe what I had just said. "Don't reveal anything!" Reginald had said, and in the first two sentences I was already giving away information about myself.

She smiled slightly, narrowed her angular eyes and asked me about my first impressions of the country. As I began to talk a pleasurable relief lightened my mind: my little slip had passed without consequences. I said that I thought the capital city was beautiful. The beer was good and also cheap. We discussed the pollution problem, which was worse in some parts of the city than others - whereabouts was I living, she asked? Did I like the area? Was it easy to get to the centre from there? Did I have many friends in the city? Did I know so-and-so? Who exactly did I know here? What were they doing in this part of the world?

I didn't have many friends in the city, I said. I didn't know so-and-so, I haven't been here long. I knew one or two people who were helping me to get settled. Her questions were coming faster and faster and I hardly had time to think of answers which would not disclose me. Sweat prickled at the edge of my scalp. My tie and stiff collar were uncomfortable and too tight. But I had to talk normally and show no discomfort, or the game would be up. What did I think of the Prime Minister? What did my colleagues think? I deflected questions. I talked obliquely, strayed from the subject, spoke in generalities, nodded and smiled - answered by any means I could in order to avoid getting into a position from which I could not extricate myself. What kind of interests did my boss have? Had my boss been here long? I fought hard to keep the conversation going. If I talked gibberish, I told myself, all will be exposed.

She narrowed her eyes at me once again and asked: "And what do you do here?"

Just as she said these words, the ambassador appeared briefly at the double doors before disappearing again into the reception area.

"Excuse me," she said before I could struggle for a reply, "there's someone I know over there. Ambassador! Ambassador! Wait a minute!"

She scuttled out of the room and I was left standing alone. I was elated: I had revealed nothing! She had not discovered I was a Gilbert. My first encounter had been an accomplishment.

I was recuperating in the washroom, smoothing out my hair and deciding on my next move, when someone grasped my elbow. I turned to find Reginald standing next to me. His long face was red and he looked euphoric.

"Success!" he said. "I don't know how Sarah managed it. Apparently she struck up a conversation with the Chairman of Parliament who introduced her to the Defence Minister, who blurted it all out. Brilliant! It looks like an accomodation with the East is in the offing." He paused thoughtfully for a moment and then asked me amicably: "And how are you doing young man?"

"Not bad, thanks. I had a talk with a woman friend of the Ambassador. I've got some firm leads which I'm going to pursue."

"Excellent! Keep up the good work!" he enthused. "I have to go. I've found a good contact in the Prime Minister's office. Bye for now!"

I washed and dried my hands and returned to the oval room, which was now packed with people and very noisy. I tried to join a group near the mantelpiece, but everyone was so tightly wedged together that I could not squeeze in. I had to stand on the periphery looking over someone's shoulder. Occasionally I threw an offhand comment into the ring but no-one noticed me.

I drifted from group to group, from room to room. I could not break into a group of people anywhere. No-one approached me. Everyone ignored me. I took an offered drink from a tray. Even the waiters sneered at me contemptously. The only thing left to do was to explore the residence.

Behind the stairs I saw a door slightly ajar. I pushed it open and found myself looking into a small bare room with a single lattice window at the back. Two people were inside: a young man was sitting on a table in the middle peering into a glass of wine; opposite him another young man with a vacant expression slouched against the wall.

"I hope I'm not disturbing....." I said.

"No," was the reply.

I entered the room and tried to start a conversation. I asked the two how they were doing and what they thought of the city and whether they thought they would be here long. The one leaning against the wall replied in monosyllables; the one peering into his wine merely snorted disconcertingly every time I spoke. I addressed my next question to him:

"Which embassy are you from then?" I asked.

He raised his head from the wine glass and looked at me disdainfully: "You're a Gilbert, aren't you?"

I gasped and stared at him, horrified.

"It's all right, we won't let on," he reassured me. "We're both Gilberts too."

All at once a wave of despair fell on me. I was disconsolate at only being a Gilbert. Everyone recognised me as one and no-one except other Gilberts wanted to talk to me. You don't get many points for being a Gilbert - a waste of time.

The three of us linked arms and huddled our heads together to form our own closed little circle, and in this way, at least, obtained some comfort in our pitiful state.

Comments powered by CComment