When I think about it now, it was already too late when Keith arrived.
I remembered a Keith from my first few days at school. He sat next to me, and though it is too far away to remember properly now, I think perhaps that our entry into school life had been staggered alphabetically because he had this easy authority over me, as if he was an old lag at the game. He was small, with crisply parted hair that made him look as if he was borne of old parents; he put me in mind of my own father in a posed for photograph that hung in a recess at his father’s house, and I don’t know whether I have done this to him since in fleeting recollections, but I see him wearing a sailor’s suit. He was only there for a few days then he disappeared forever. Maybe his rotten spiky teeth explained the mystery. And now this Keith, my second, who, despite my seniority in the common room, acted as if he’d been there as long as me.
By rights I should have welcomed him to his new home, but he was sitting there in his anorak when I came back from the bathroom one morning and it felt as if I had gone in to his. He said nothing until we were alone, then got up and walked directly towards me. Key physiological group: plain – featureless, prematurely ageing face, very large forehead, could easily have been retarded. I said nothing too – unsure yet as to whether he was a new instrument of torture and so conjured with the old favourites: deference or bonhomie? I felt examined, like a chimpanzee would analyse his new keeper. Eventually he broke the silence.
‘I’m Keith, how come you ended up here?’ and it seemed to imply, ‘someone like you,’ as if it was perfectly reasonable to expect someone like him to end up in a place like that.
He stared, waiting for a response, and I suppose I was waiting for him to qualify his question, or maybe change it to a different one, like, ‘Where are we?’ whilst I tried to decide whether he was knowing, or ignorant – I couldn’t fathom the implied assertion that he knew what here was.
I sat, he bent towards me. We were silent. Was he rude, or polite? He showed admirable patience in waiting for a response but seemed disinclined to go away without one.
‘Oh, me. Sorry. Well, every single decision I have ever made was wrong. Then I ended up here.’
He sniggered. We laughed. But when the silence resumed his expression told me that he was still waiting for an answer. I was reluctant to give one but eventually I allowed myself to be persuaded by his urchin curiosity.
‘I think I was mistaken for the real target.’ Maybe Chief Sepoy Marudeva had planted him? It made no difference, I only had one story. He nods. I realise I should reciprocate.
‘I can’t work out why they took me either.’ Then he said something about an office, which I didn’t catch. He was too earnest to be a spy. ‘Frankly I’m a collaborator, and I’m here to chip away at your confidence until you beg me to listen to your confession.’ He’d soon know that I was incapable of withstanding a disapproving gaze let alone torture.
‘Well, I’m definitely a mistake,’ I told him, ‘They’ve told me who they think I am.’
‘Don’t forget,’ he said, going back to his spot to sit like me, ‘to be a Fundamentalist, the first criteria is to be fundamentally thick.’ We laugh again, and perhaps we both think that we like each other.
Then I remember to warn him, ‘Don’t worry about me,’ I tell him. ‘I lack confidence with new people, and I appear to be an idiot.’ I did. That’s why Deadbeat used to whisper answers to me when I didn’t need his help; and it’s why I’d never succeeded in any sort of interview ever; and it’s why, when we delivered our self-assessed weekly tests at the end of term, I was the only one whose honesty was doubted by the French master for having a too high mark. The worst of it was I didn’t even come top in those tests as I ultimately did in the exams. There was no apology though; it didn’t merit a Sorry for doubting you. Perhaps they knew that they’d be proved right in the end. The end of the end. Or maybe he’d met my father socially?
‘You’ll see the real me when I warm up,’ I tell him, ‘So don’t despair that you’ve been dumped with a halfwit. I’m not half as stupid as that.’ He doesn’t get the ‘half’ joke but I suddenly realise that I’m giving him my confession before we know each other (again). I seemed not to be capable of stopping once started – compelled onwards by adrenalin and a sort of nervous tension that lived too close to the surface, and not, as Keith spoke, from a deeper more comfortable place.
I can’t remember the last time I was required to talk to someone properly. Latterly, before the epiphany – Epi – to go crazy; phany – pudendum; epiphany – to make a cunt of yourself – conversations had tended to trail off; a matter I put down to my interlocutor losing the taste for the exchange as I proved myself incapable of remaining intelligently on point. It was my haste to find the positive rounding off statement at the end of each sentence that was my undoing. Reservations about allowing the theme to develop. Draw a line to end the transaction while the plusses and minuses could still be calculated. Liquidate constantly. Look for an exit. Keith should be warned. I am a liquidator; he will be the liquidatee…
… depending on who you are and what function you’re serving. But he doesn’t seem to heed. He just laughs like I’ve told him a joke he doesn’t get. To make it easier for him, I add ‘I trained as a liquidator,’ which was neither true nor illuminating. It just felt like the right thing to say.
‘You know him then?’ he said.
‘The person they were trying to get instead of you.’
‘Oh him, not really, but I’ve met him, I think.’ I tell him of my abduction, of the pink and fleshy underachieving son of a billionaire, Nigel Ackerman, for whom I had been mistaken; that I fancy him to be a hedge fund trader or wealth manager or whatever it is they call themselves, I say, wondering, as I do, whether Keith needs me to explain these terms as I go. I flirt for a moment with saying that our captors think that we all look alike but I stop myself from making the sort of joke that references his simian features, and so I say that they were unable to tell us apart when it came to execute the deed.
‘To be fair,’ he says, ‘I can see that. You look like one of those Oxbridge-City types to me.’
He had mistaken the remnants of my slick Vicks razor cut bob, sunken cheeks, and wan complexion as an indicator of breeding and prosperity. Not me, I say, I’m more of a humpbacked bridge-village type really, but I can’t get him laughing again.
And besides, I didn’t say it to be funny.