28. The Interloper


THE WHOLE CITY WAS in a state of suspended animation. Protesters had set up camp downtown, blocking roads. We were told there was nothing to fear but that we should stay in our rooms. Molly pointed out the contradiction, but we all felt it. The excursion to the Lost City had already been postponed several times. We were told westerners were being targeted by the demonstrators, but Molly and Richard speculated that the army was preparing to open fire on the protesters, and they didn't want witnesses, especially foreign witnesses. Flights in and out of the country had been suspended indefinitely as the air traffic controllers had joined the general strike. The government was in trouble, and there were rumours that a coup was expected any day now, that the army was preparing a takeover. Strangely, the conference was proceeding as scheduled, although as only those guests staying in the hotel could attend, the sessions became sad affairs, attended by a smattering of people. Besides, there was something obscene about talking about democratisation and governance in the midst of what was happening around us. So five of us set up camp in Molly's room, leaving only occasionally to take the lift down to the restaurant, which was functioning as well as it could, although day by day, meal by meal, there were less menu options to choose from. By day four we had taken to ordering room service meals, and our options had shrunk to halal hamburgers and French fries. You could hear the crowds chanting in the distance - in fact if you craned your neck on the balcony and looked towards the centre of town you could make out the demonstrators marching through the streets, although as the room was on the seventeenth floor only Molly braved the vertiginous heights to see for herself. I refused to go out onto the balcony altogether during the day, although I slept out there at night as I can't sleep in air conditioned rooms, and the air conditioning was still working - was working only too well, in fact. At night, the noise from the protests diminished. Many of the protesters retired to their pitched tents, but most went home, to return the following morning. The army had imposed a curfew and it was impossible to leave the hotel. Throughout the city in the glowing darkness, the streets echoed with the sound of voices singing from the rooftops. We asked the room service waiter what they were singing. Revolution songs, he replied with a glint of pride. During the day, half a dozen helicopters hovered above the protests at any one time like eagles hovering above their prey. Throughout, day and night, the heat was almost sinister. We debated how to kill the time. Molly, holding court as always, convinced us we ought to play games. We had no cards, so we had to invent games. As the days passed, these games became increasingly elaborate. Umberto was usually the loser as he seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. He seemed to have fallen in love with Molly to the point where he could barely speak to her, and looking her in the eye was out of the question. If she knew the power she had over him she didn't let on. Richard was with us and not with us in that classically Richard kind of way, present and absent at the same time, so self-contained that it seemed his real self was always slightly beyond reach. He played all the games, he played them well in fact, but without ever giving out the impression that he was truly there among us. The fifth man was Ron. It wasn't until the afternoon of day four, while Ron was out on the balcony smoking a cigarette, that we realised that in fact none of us knew precisely who he was or how he had ended up among us. We others had all known each other from other similar conferences, colloquia and seminars, but Ron had first appeared among us in the role of a friend of Richard's, when in fact they'd only just met, over a drink in the bar downstairs - with the unlikely name the Molotov - on the first day of the conference. He had followed Richard upstairs and stayed, without a word of explanation from Richard. Then again this was normal behaviour for Richard. For days now, then, a stranger had lived among us, smiling stupidly at any and every little thing, ingratiating himself first with Richard, and when intimacy-averse Richard retreated with Molly, Molly the red-haired extrovert who craved only one thing, the approval of everyone. Then, when Molly's need for approval had been finally satiated, he moved on briefly to Umberto only to receive a cool reception from Umberto, who could be so frosty to strangers he was often said to be aloof. Rebuffed by Umberto, Ron had finally turned his headlights onto me, bewitching me with a look on his face that flickered, I now realised, between ingenuousness and calculation. There was something mesmeric about this ability of his to switch between the two - now that we knew he wasn't one of us, his imposture seemed obvious to us, and we kicked ourselves that we hadn't spotted it earlier. But his camouflage was good: he could pretend to be one of us well enough and quietly enough to have been able to stick around all night that first night, while we all drank ourselves stupid on mini-drinks from the mini-fridge. Then he was there the next day, and then the next – never entirely a part of the group, and yet never overstaying his welcome. In retrospect, it had been a masterly performance. He had summed us up in an instant and made himself almost invisible to us - and now that I had figured him out, all I wanted to do was study him, but I never could look at him for more than a few seconds. He was one of those people who seem to know when they are being watched, and by whom, because every time I looked at him for more than just a few seconds, he would invariably turn his head and look straight back at me, smiling, but smiling without humour, forcing me to look away awkwardly as quickly as possible, and afterwards I would blush interminably. I had to steal surreptitious glances at him, and tally them up to try to make a whole portrait, the result of which was he never seemed entirely whole to me, but was rather a kaleidoscopic jumble of shifting fragments slipping in and out of focus. When, on that third day while he stood smoking outside it dawned on us what he was playing at, we all furiously whispered our outrage to one another, all except Richard, that is, who remained typically unaffected. But when the balcony door slid open and he stepped back inside the room, having finished his cigarette, we all snapped back into our previous innocent roles. He had threatened us in no overt way and yet what he had demonstrated of his powers was so impressive that we were already terrified of him, of what he could do. Having stepped back into a situation that had changed so markedly since before he'd stepped out for that cigarette, did he or did he not note a shift in our mood, I wonder? It was impossible to tell - to watch him too closely would have been a giveaway. We were now simulating nonchalance, and it was an act that we would maintain doggedly over the following days in the face of mounting evidence that we had been seen through, that he had seen through us perhaps as early as the very beginning. If there was a moment to act, it was then and there, as soon as the realisation of who he wasn't (for of course we had no idea, then, of who he actually was) dawned on us, and because we hadn't seized it, we became stuck, the four of us. In the following days, as this little artificial world we had created collapsed around us, we unwittingly became the prisoners of the impostor, and he our captor, the results of which were, as is now well known, catastrophic for us all.