Books - Icelight

‘What would my job be?’
Ayrtoun was in no hurry. He lit another cigarette and puffed.  ‘Damage limitation, I suppose you could call it.’
Cotton sighed. They were on Streatham High Road. Ayrtoun pointed at the Goose pub.
‘And where does the Greyhound fit in?’ Cotton asked.
‘The love that dares not speak its name has watering holes and meeting places,’ said Ayrtoun.
‘All right,’ said Cotton.
‘What have they been giving you to do?’ asked Ayrtoun.
‘Colonial stuff,’ said Cotton unobligingly.
Ayrtoun let out one of his spectacularly loud, snorting laughs. ‘Are you on for something a little more interesting?’
‘I’ve just been reading about Malaya,’ said Cotton. ‘I quite liked the sound of that.’
Ayrtoun frowned. ‘Do you even know how long it’s been since I slept?’
‘No idea at all,’ said Cotton.
Ayrtoun grunted and closed his eyes.
At one level, Cotton was relieved. He preferred the uninterrupted whine and rumble of the vehicle to Ayrtoun’s voice. Ayrtoun had aged in a year, looked pasty, had put on some more weight. Never tall, he now looked like some spiteful, long-nosed Budha. Someone in Washington had said ‘the problem with Ayrtoun is that he doesn’t so much brief you as lambast you. You have to pick through all that violence and translate.’ Cotton looked up. The driver had run into problems, got his directions confused. The Triumph made several turns before they got on to North End.
Croydon had a bottleneck, caused by a narrowing of the road at the Whitgift almshouses. While they waited, some way back from the traffic-lights, Ayrtoun came to and looked across at a full triple window display of Snow White in the arcade of a department store. In its own way it was a remarkable thing, of solid wood beds and chairs and automaton figures, including blue birds moving on a wide halo-type circuit round Snow White herself, and the crackling sound of ‘Whistle While you Work’ from a loudspeaker.
‘Not much of a Christmas,’ said Ayrtoun, pointing at the window. ‘That’s pre-war, barely dusted off. The show’s grubby and the tinsel’s sad.’
The lights changed and the car moved on. It did so slowly but did not stop, creeping along after the traffic lights towards the High Street corner of the Surrey Street market.
Ayrtoun sat up and made a beckoning gesture. A slight young man, dressed in a pale-tweed suit and brown brogues that could only have come from the black market, ran across the road and opened the front passenger’s door of the slow-moving car. He brought in chill and a faint smell of toffee apples, roasting chestnuts
and something like overripe oranges.
The young man jumped in beside the driver, slammed the door and removed his hat. He had blondish curly hair that had been much oiled. Ayrtoun sighed and pointed. ‘May I introduce you to Derek Jennings,’ he said. ‘The boogie-woogie bucal boy from Company Bum.’
The boy had already shrunk down in his seat and was twitching his hat in front of his face as if it were something between a fan and a wide-brimmed mask.
‘Derek is affecting discomfort that he might be seen with us in a chauffeur-driven car. Absolute horse shit, of course. Unless, of course he doesn’t think the car quite grand enough.’
Ayrtoun pointed again at Derek’s small, curly head. ‘I should inform you, Colonel,’ said Ayrtoun, ‘that Derek tells the Inland Revenue he works as a freelance
journalist or stringer. At one level at least, one of the liberal or muck-raking  professions, isn’t that right, Derek?’
Derek did not answer.
Ayrtoun cleared his throat and turned his head a little towards Cotton. ‘He also works for us, of course. Five quid a week, isn’t it, Derek?’
Derek did not reply. They passed the Swan and Sugarloaf pub.
‘Now that is a nice name,’ said Ayrtoun.
When they reached the Red Deer, Ayrtoun spoke again. ‘I’ve been thinking of giving you a raise, Derek,’ he drawled, ‘commensurate with some new things you’re
going to have to do. What would you say to . . . seven pounds ten?’
‘Better a tenner,’ said Derek.
Ayrtoun laughed, apparently delighted. Even the driver let out a snigger.