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Gerald Seymour

The Collaborator

PROLOGUE

It was a hot afternoon, stinking hot, and the sun beat up from the concrete path, dazzling him. A ridiculous afternoon to be out in a London park. He’d met friends for lunch, arranged long back, on the south side of the park – two guys from college days – but they’d had their girlfriends in tow, like trophies, which had made him feel awkward, as if he, not they, were the intruders. And, truth was, he’d been bored because the togetherness of the couples seemed to shred the spirit of mischief that ran in him – some called it ‘happy go lucky’ and his dad ‘Jack the lad’ – and he’d wanted to be gone before the loss was terminal. It had all been too damn serious, which seldom fitted well with him.

He’d eaten the meal, coughed up his share of the bill, and walked away from the Underground station, had crossed Kensington Road and gone into the park, over Rotten Row, and been within a few yards of the dog-leg lake before his mind had kicked back into gear. By now, the couples would be talking mortgages and future prospects. He was in the park where heat reverberated off the scorched grass and concrete. There wasn’t half a square centimetre of shade close to him, and it was a pretty silly place to be – no skateboarders or football to watch, no promenade of stripped-down girls.

He looked for a bench to flop down on. He wasn’t stressed by the heat or the lack of entertainment – his own little world gave him no grief – but it was damn hot.

The bench he saw was blurred, but a haven. He heard, far away, the shouts of children playing at the water’s edge, but round the bench there was quiet. His eyes were nearly closed as he sank on to the wooden slats, which grilled his backside and lower spine. Jumbled thoughts loitered in his mind – home, parents, work, food, getting back to the north-east of the city, money – all easily discarded. With his eyes sealed against the light, maybe he dreamed, maybe he dozed. Time slipped on a July afternoon on the last day of the first week in the month.

The idyll was broken.

‘Excuse… please.’ A clear, uncluttered voice, an accent. He jolted upright. ‘I’m sorry. I…’

Eddie Deacon never considered that responding might change his life, push it on to a road unrecognised and unexplored… His eyes snapped open.

He saw the girl – dark hair, light skin, dark eyes. Hadn’t been aware of her coming to the bench… might even have been there when he’d taken his seat…

Mutual apologies. Sorry that he had been asleep. Sorry that she had woken him.

She wore a cotton skirt, short, not much of it, a white blouse, brief sleeves, and a textbook lay open on her lap, with an ItalianEnglish pocket dictionary.

Strangers pausing, wondering whether to go forward – and blurting together.

‘What can I do?’

‘Please, I am confused.’

‘How can I help?’

‘I do not understand.’

They both laughed, chimed with each other. Eddie Deacon pushed hair off his forehead. He saw that when she laughed the gold crucifix, dangling from a chain bounced on her cleavage. That was what he saw – and she would have seen? Him writing the script: not a bad-looking guy, pretty well turned-out, good head of hair, a decent complexion and a smile to die for. And she would have heard? A laugh that was infectious, not forced, and a voice with a tone of interest that was honest and not patronising. Well, he was hardly going to short-change himself.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘I don’t understand this – “turn over”. What is “turn over”?’

Eddie Deacon grinned. ‘Is this “turn over” in bed? Or “turnover” in business?’

‘Business. It is a book on auditing accounts in English – and it says “turn over”.’

He asked, ‘You’re Italian?’

‘Yes.’

He said, ‘In Italian, “turnover” is fatturato. You understand?’

‘Of course, yes, I do… and you speak Italian.’

He shrugged. ‘A little.’

‘OK, OK…’ She smiled – her teeth glowed, her eyes were alight. She riffled again through the pages of her book. Her finger darted down and stabbed at a line. ‘Here… For “balance” we have soppesare in my dictionary, but that is not the Italian word for the commercial balance of an account. What should it be?’

‘To “balance” an account is bilanciare, and a “balance sheet” is bilancio di esercizio. Does that help?’

She touched his hand – fleeting, a natural, spontaneous gesture of gratitude. He felt the tips of her fingers on his skin. He liked girls, liked their touch, but would have admitted, if quizzed, that he was currently ‘between relationships’. God, who needed commitments? He’d nearly been engaged, to a local-government kitchen-hygiene inspector, two years back but his mother had become too fond of her too quickly. He hadn’t found a soulmate.

‘I have a very good helper.’

Eddie Deacon said he should be good – he was a language teacher. He didn’t add that if he’d put his back into it he might have made interpreter level and gone to Brussels or even the United Nations, but it would have been a hassle. He taught English to overseas students. His core tongues were German, French and Spanish but he also had useful Italian. She told him she was on two courses in London: in the morning she studied English language and in the afternoons she did accounting and bookkeeping. Eddie Deacon wondered why a pretty girl in a tight skirt and a tight blouse, from Italy, bothered with any of that, but didn’t take it further. The sun seemed, in mid-afternoon, to spear his forehead and shoulders. The men and women who walked past the bench wore floppy hats or had white war-paint daubed on exposed skin, while little parasols shaded tots in push-chairs. There were squeals and shrieks from the lake, and splashing. He assumed that swimming in the Serpentine was forbidden and that the gauleiter men would be there soon, yelling that it was verboten.

He stood up. ‘It’s a bit warm for me. I prefer to be out of the sun.’

She said, ‘Where is to be the new classroom? I need all opportunities to speak English. I have a teacher. I do not wish to lose him.’

It was, he thought, a challenge. She must have realised he intended to walk away, but her chin had jutted, her shoulders were back and now she was almost blocking his path. He reckoned that she was used to getting what she wanted. He didn’t push past her. Now, for the first time since he had woken up, he looked at his self-enrolled pupil. She was lightly built, had narrow hips, a squashed-in waist and a good-sized, but not gross, bosom. Her face fascinated him: a fine jaw, a delicate nose and a high forehead, the hair pushed back. But it was her eyes that caught him. They had authority, did not brook denial. As a general rule, Eddie Deacon did not fight authority. He was one to go with the flow. He didn’t look at the hips, waist or breasts of the girl before him but was carried deep into her eyes.

He asked where she was heading, and she told him. He told her he lived nearby – a small untruth: it would probably have taken him almost an hour to walk from Hackney to where he lived on the west side of the Balls Pond Road. He suggested they find a pub, with open doors, big fans and a cool interior. There, he said, they could have a hack at any accounting or bookkeeping language that was giving her grief. Her books were in a bag now, and he took it, slung the strap across his shoulder. She hooked her hand into the crook of his arm.

Her hips swung as she walked, and she threw back her head, letting her hair fall between her shoulder- blades where the blouse collar had slipped.

‘By the way, I’m Eddie Deacon.’

Her name was Immacolata.

On the north side of the park they took a bus and sat on the top deck with the window open beside them so that a zephyr of cooler air reached them. She leafed through the textbook, found English commercial expressions

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