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Sport 8: Autumn 1992


He was 52 and had that London look—dry hair (he ran his fingers through it, glancing at himself in the lift mirror), tired eyes, something unhealthy about the skin; the suggestion of less than perfect cleanliness, which, like Lady MacBeth's 'damned spot', no amount of washing would quite remove. Was there a word for it? 'Care-worn' sounded too Victorian and virtuous. 'Stressed' was its modern and equally self-serving equivalent.

Within himself he felt little of thismdash;only allowed the recognition to run through his mind, thinking it was how she, a 26-year-old fresh from New Zealand, would see him. As the lift doors opened he caught sight of her sitting in Reception. It was her knees that registered first, primly side by side, in dark stockings, with neat knee-caps and a fine curve away from each side, cut off by the line of the skirt. Good strong Kiwi legs, he thought; and then remembered how when he'd first come to England it had seemed to him that young Englishwomen had no calf muscles. It wasn't true any longer. In the intervening decades Europe had become athletic.

She looked in his direction and must have guessed he was the man she was to meet, but he went first to the desk and said he would be out until three.

'James Barrett,' he said taking the hand she held out to him. 'And you're Angela McIlroy.'

Out in the street she said she'd lost her bearings. He pointed down the Farringdon Road to where the figure of justice over the Old Bailey lifted sword and scales against the dome of St Paul's. The sun glared down through the haze, casting no decisive shadows. The thump of a 24-hour disco came up through a basement grating. Believing he knew how dingy and confusing these streets must seem to her, he hailed a taxi and gave directions.

They were settled at a table under a tree in a pub yard near the British Museum and had made their choices before he took the little tape machine from his pocket and propped it between the pepper and salt.

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'You won't mind, will you? he asked, and she shook her head. She was unassertive, making no attempt to impress him. Shy, he decided; slightly apprehensive, but self-contained—and he made a mental note of these descriptions.

No need to turn on the machine yet; no need to begin at once with her novel, which was the purpose of the interview. Better to begin—where else?—at their common beginning. She knew he'd grown up in New Zealand?—left as a young man intending to return, but had married an Englishwoman and ...

Yes, she knew all that. She'd been told. 'Interesting,' she added, nodding and smiling—but he could see it was something other than interest she felt. Disapproval, perhaps? Or was it just indifference?

'I've been back, of course, but only for short stays—three weeks at most. There were eighteen years I never set foot in the place. By then it was too late.'

She'd ordered a salade niçoise. He watched her struggling to cut the lettuce in its bowl. Her drink was mineral water.

'Quite sure?' he asked, lifting his bottle of Italian white.

She held up one hand, like a policeman. Her mouth was full of salad. He filled his glass.

'Oh dammit,' she said, draining the mineral water and holding out her glass. 'Why not?'

'Why not?' he agreed, filling her glass.

'I'm not abstemious,' she said. 'Not especially. But jet-lag and wine. . .'

He nodded. 'Here's to A Short History of New Zealand'

They touched glasses and drank, but the naming of her novel seemed to bring back that wariness which just for a moment he'd thought was about to be cast aside. She fell silent, waiting for him to lead their conversation.

'I read a large part of it coming down on the train this morning. It's quite a grim picture.

She inclined her head.

'And a true one, so far as I can judge.' And then, almost without meaning to, he began to talk as the expatriate. Once started, it was hard to stop. Some part of his mind was detached. Was this the way to go about it? But then, why not? Somehow he had to get a response out of her.

His view of New Zealand was almost entirely negative, and at first, from the way she met his eyes, nodded, murmured assent, he could see he was page 97 taking her with him. But then he went too far. He felt it himself, and saw it in her eyes. Even New Zealand's weather, it seemed, was now inferior. This was London's third good summer in succession. She put her hand over her mouth, and her eyes were smiling.

He looked down at the table cloth and thought for a moment. 'I'm a journalist,' he said firmly. 'Sometimes when I get a twinge of the old nostalgia I just let myself think what it would have been like working on the Herald or the Dom or the Press, or the ODT for God's sake—just imagine it!—dealing with local cow and sheep stories, while all the world stuff was coming in on the wire, written by someone else.'

She nodded, but with such a blank face he began to feel irritation. Did she want him to write about her book? Did she understand that he was doing her a favour? 'My paper has a million readers,' he said.

Her face softened, as if there was something she understood. 'You've done well,' she said.