Unnumbered Days of Unremembered People
I HAD LEFT one city and would continue on to another if my prospective meeting was unsuccessful. But for the present, on an early-autumn afternoon, I had arrived at a discreet hotel and was ensconced, the solitary occupant with coffee and a book, in its garden courtyard.
The fierce heat of summer was abating, though the resonant murmur of insects persisted, and the garden was ablaze with the colour of bougainvillea and hibiscus, of mimosa and jasmine and stephanotis. Soon, as evening approached, the air would be drowsy with perfume.
I turned back to my book: a traveller’s tale, rich in detail, poetic in descriptions of landscape and people.
I am not by nature a traveller myself, though I have become one albeit reluctantly in recent years, by virtue of my employment and of circumstance. Yet there must be in my genetic inheritance, I think, some vestige of the voyager, the explorer, for though I read eclectically, I am always drawn back irresistibly to the travels of others.
And so I participate vicariously in the journeys of such sterling characters as Livingstone and Burton and Speke, Heyerdahl and Chatwin and, most recently, Freya Stark.
He came into the courtyard quietly, almost surreptitiously, and sat at a table across from me. After a while they brought him coffee; a moment or so later I sensed his sudden movement toward me.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “They forgot the sugar. May I?” His accent was what these days is loosely described as ‘international’.
He was of average height and average build and average middle age. The colour of his hair was a kind of mouse brown, the colour of his eyes a similar hue. Of visible distinguishing marks on his person there were none. He wore an open-necked shirt and slacks, leather moccasins on his feet.
He returned the sugar and my attention was caught by his hands – strong, masculine hands, capable and well cared for, the hands of a fastidious, methodical man, hands that knew their work and would carry it through to completion.
“I noticed your book,” he said.
“I read a book by that author once, years ago,” he said. “I don’t remember the title of the book, but I remember the author’s name, and I remember a particular expression she used.”
“She was describing some event or other and she referred to it as ‘unnumbered days of unremembered people’. I was much taken with that expression at the time, and I have never forgotten it.”
“It is a memorable expression,” I said.
He made as though to return to his table, then paused uncertainly.
“Would you mind if I joined you?” he asked.
He brought his coffee and sat opposite me.
“It is very pleasant here,” he said. “I would like to stay on indefinitely, but I have an appointment.”
“Appointments,” I said, “seem to govern our lives.”
He sipped his coffee, and for a moment appeared lost in thought. Then he turned to face me.
“Do you believe in destiny?” he asked.
“I don’t believe in very much,” I said, “but in my experience effects have their causes, and perhaps that is destiny.”
I paused, momentarily.
“There is,” I said, “in the Babylonian Talmud, a saying attributed to Solomon that, ‘A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted’.”
“But can we change the course of our lives, do you think?”
“In the day-to-day details, perhaps, but not, I think, the major events.”
He finished his coffee.
“May I ask you a personal question?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Would you change the present details of your life if you could?”
I reflected for a moment.
“If I could,” I said, “I might. But I can’t.”
“Ah,” he said, rather sadly I thought.
He looked up at the forerunners of the myriad stars that soon would be luminous overhead; then he surveyed the garden, softly-lit and perfume-laden now, with an all-encompassing appraisal.
“It is so pleasant here,” he said. “I do wish I could have stayed longer.”
“It is a lovely place,” I agreed.
He turned to face me squarely.
“I know who you are,” he said.
“I know why you’re here.”
He stood up and adjusted his chair to the table.
“I enjoyed our conversation,” he said, “and now I’ll bid you goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” I said, and watched him as he left.
They served me dinner in the courtyard: lamb cutlets on couscous with peach mango yogurt; a half-bottle of Château Carbonnieux for the lamb; M’hanncha for dessert; and afterwards a pot of coffee, a liqueur, and Turkish cigarettes.
I waited an appropriate interval, then left the courtyard and went through to reception.
“My compliments to the chef,” I said to the receptionist.
“Thank you, Monsieur. I will pass on your sentiments.”
“Do you have a ‘do not disturb’ sign for the door?
“There is one in your room, Monsieur.”
“It is for my friend,” I said. “He will sleep late. Perhaps until noon. I will be leaving early tomorrow.”
“Very good, Monsieur. I will make a note of both matters.”
“Goodnight, Monsieur. Rêves plaisants.”
He appeared to be asleep when I entered his room, curled foetus-like away from me. He looked surprisingly small in the bed, now even less significant than he had seemed during our brief contact.
He hadn’t looked like an assassin - not the tabloid image of one, at any rate. He’d looked so … ordinary. Which, of course, when you came to think of it, was the point. But I knew him by reputation. He’d been anything but ordinary.
I shot him once, in the back of the head, through the blanket I had brought with me. The sound of the pistol was still alarmingly loud, and I mentally prepared myself for the furore which might follow.
But calm prevailed, the earth shrouded, swallowed up it seemed, in the perfume-saturated, disorienting muffler of night.
I sat on the floor beside his bed and reflected on our meeting. I recalled the expression which he had found so memorable; no doubt I would come across it in one of the author’s books I had yet to read, and in doing so I might, perhaps, remember him.
After a while I left the room, hung the ‘do not disturb’ sign on his door handle, and went to prepare for my departure.