Michael Dillon, a self-described “poet in a business suit,” is a once-aspiring writer in Belfast whose dreams have been consumed by a stultifying career as a hotel manager and a hateful marriage to his unstable wife, Moira. But on the day he decides to leave Moira for his younger lover and take off for London, IRA terrorists break into the Dillon home. Their plan is simple: They’ll hold Moira hostage while Michael plants a bomb designed to kill a rabble-rousing Protestant and his flock convening for a political rally. If Michael goes to the police, Moira dies. It’s only the first choice of many—because in Brian Moore’s “breathtakingly constructed” nightmare, the day has just begun (Los Angeles Times).
“The plot [is] one that only a spoiler would reveal—and risk ruining the surprises that detonate throughout the novel like cleverly hidden and elegantly designed incendiary devices. The notion of ‘unbearable suspense’ is, of course, a cliché, but I found that I kept briefly putting down the novel to postpone the moment when I had to face what might happen next.” —Francine Prose, The New York Times
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At a quarter to nine, just before going off work, Dillon went down to reception to check the staff roster for tomorrow. Two of the six women who came in to make breakfasts were reporting sick, so room service would be short-staffed in the morning. He told Eileen, the clerk on the front desk, to ask Duffy to ring around and see if he could find replacements. But it would be a wasted exercise. He then went down the hall and had a word with Collis, the banquet manager.
"Bloody hell," Collis said. "I'm no help to you. Wouldn't you know it would happen on a day when we have two breakfast functions. And one of them's for eighty people."
Collis pointed to the appointments board:
ORANGE ORDER CANADIAN LODGES COMMEMORATION BREAKFAST
Speaker: Rev. Alun Pottinger 8:30 A.M. EMERALD ROOM (Ticket Holders only)
"Pottinger," he said. "I forgot."
"Will there be special security?" Collis asked.
"I don't think so. He has his own minders. How many private luncheons do you have?"
"In the banquet rooms I have four. Full up. And the dining room is fully booked."
"Well, it's graduation week," he said. He looked at the clock on Collis's desk. One minute past nine. She should be home now. He said good night to Collis and made his last round of the day, stopping in at the lobby bar to sign a supplies list. The bar was the busiest part of the hotel and a favorite hangout for the university crowd. Last year he had changed the decor and hung large photographs of contemporary Irish poets and singers on the walls.
"Are you daft?" Mickey Cavan, the head barman, had asked him. "Sure nobody will know who the half of these fellows are."
"You may not," he told Mickey, "but most of your customers will."
Tonight, the place was packed with celebrating students. He had to push his way through a jam of boys and girls, laughing, drinking, arguing. Last year Andrea was one of this crowd, her degree fresh in her hand, with no notion that he even existed. Fear came over him again. Don't think about it.
At the bar, there were four men serving. One of them, a temporary, saw him and went for Mickey. When Mickey brought the supplies list and put it in front of him, suddenly it was as though he had forgotten why he had come in here. Mickey was saying something, but the words were as meaningless as the muted mouthings of the newsreader on the television set above the bar. He signed the supplies list without looking at it, said good night to Mickey, and, in sudden panic, pushed his way out through the press of students. In the lobby he did not wait for the lift but ran up the winding staircase to his office on the mezzanine. He shut the door behind him and stood, feeling his heart thump. His office, lit by the yellow glow of a summer's evening, was still as a painting. He dialed her number. One of her flatmates answered.
"Just a minute. Hold on, please. Andrea? ANDREA?"
He would not ask her over the phone. He did not want to be told it over the phone.
"It's me," he said. "Like to go for a walk?"
"It's after nine, Michael."
"It will still be light for nearly an hour. Please?"
She hesitated. "All right, I'll wait for you outside the house."
At once, he was sure of the worst. They offered it and she said yes.
"Excuse me, sir."
He looked up. It was Annie, one of the night cleaners. "Can I do your office now, Mr. Dillon? Are you off home?"
"Yes, go ahead."
She came in, pushing her cleaning cart in front of her, stout, old, her legs encased in orthopedic stockings. "Safe home, then," she said, as he went out.
His little red Renault was in its reserved parking space below the banqueting room windows. As he went toward it, a taxi drove into the parking lot and stopped. Two girls got out. They wore dance frocks and came toward the entrance to the ballroom. Hurrying, laughing, talking, they ran past without giving him a look. How old were they? Nineteen? He would be old to them.
"Come on, what's twelve years?" Andrea had said.
"A generation," he said.
He got into the Renault and drove down toward the hotel security gates. A queue of cars was waiting to be admitted to the hotel grounds. Security was tight, for the hotel had been bombed last year. The occupants of each car must get out and go into the adjoining security hut for a body search, while the car itself was checked over by the outside guards.
Gerry, one of the night men, saw his Renault coming and ran to open the exit gate. "Good night, Mr. Dillon."
The gate shut behind him as he nosed the car out onto the Malone Road. Mountjoy Avenue, where Andrea shared an upstairs flat with two other girls, was less than five minutes away. As he drove up the Malone Road past rows of terraced Victorian houses, a police armored car came toward him, lopsided, like a damaged cardboard carton. It stopped at the cross street ahead. Five policemen climbed out of its rear, wearing combat jackets, their revolvers cowboy-low on their thighs. Wary, they crossed the street and entered a small grocery store. Tonight, this familiar sight depressed him. Why should he stay, why should anyone in their senses stay here?
When he turned into Mountjoy Avenue he saw her waiting, wearing a loose blue denim shirt, jeans and scuffed loafers. She waved to him. As he drove closer, he tried to read an answer in her face and, when she got into the car, he leaned over and kissed her. She did not speak or look at him when his lips touched her cheek. "Let's go on the towpath for a bit," he said. "Is that all right?"
She nodded. He put the car in gear and drove on. "How are you?" he asked.
"Fine. Did you have a busy day?"
"How about your day? What happened?"
"I asked you first."
So she did not want to talk about it. Maybe she didn't get it. But that, he knew, was wishful thinking.
"Well, it was pretty hectic," he said. "And tomorrow will be worse. It's graduation week at Queen's."
"God, was it only last year — that tacky rented robe and you walk across the stage and they shake your hand and give you a scroll, and you think: Is this what I studied for, is this all it is?"
"Of course. I forgot. When was it you graduated?"
He did a small sad sum in his head. "A long time ago."
"Lunch at the Clarence," she said. "It's all part of the ritual, isn't it? I remember last year, we went there, three of us, right after the graduation ceremonies. We had it all planned, a table, a big celebratory lunch. But there was some mix-up in the reservations and we wound up eating sandwiches in the bar."
"Pity you didn't know me then."
"Just as well. If I'd met you before my finals, I wouldn't have passed them."
She smiled as she said it. The first time he ever saw her was in the hotel. He had arranged conference rooms for an Arts Council symposium of Scottish and Irish poets. A BBC crew was covering the event and he noticed her at once, young, attractive, doing interviews with a sound and camera unit. Suddenly, she came up to him. "You're one of the Irish poets, aren't you?" she asked, and in that moment all the wrong turnings he had taken in his life came back to sentence him.
"I was, once," he said. "Now, I'm a hotel manager."
"Once a poet," she said, and smiled at him. He noticed her accent.
"Are you American?"
"Canadian." She kept looking at him. She was not smiling now. "My name is Andrea Baxter," she said. "Would you like to have a drink when I've finished?"
That was it. She had started it. Tonight, she might end it, and now when he drove into the public car-park above the Lagan River towpath it came to him that if it were to end tonight, he had, inadvertently, chosen the perfect setting. For it was here, five months ago, that she had told him she loved him.
As they went down the narrow lane leading to the towpath, a courting couple came up, the boy's arm around the girl's waist, the girl's head on his shoulder. When Andrea saw them she moved ahead, single file, to let them pass undisturbed, going on alone down to the quiet of the river. Here, all was pastoral and still. Trees, heavy with leaves, creaked gently in the late evening breeze. In the river, lily pads floated on dark green currents. On the far bank, fields stretched to the horizon. Unlike most of the city's outskirts this place had not changed since those turn-of-the-century days when horses drew barges along this towpath, bringing loads of flax to the city's linen mills. Now, as then, it was a lover's lane, a place where couples went to be alone, lying hidden in the long grasses. He quickened his step and drew level with her. She stopped, looked down, and pointed at the current. "See — a fish."
He saw only green reeds rippling in the dark waters. "Where?"
"I don't see it."
But, as he spoke, a silvery fish fluttered underwater like a falling kite. "You can tell me," he said. "I'm expecting it."
"The meeting. What happened?"
She laughed. "I was wondering when you'd ask."
"Come on. What was it all about?"
"Well, it seems they're looking for someone to be head researcher for a new national arts program. Apparently, Martin recommended me and Nigel Somerville wants to meet me next week in London."
"For an interview?"
"Not exactly. Martin thinks I've got the job, if I want it."
"But of course you want it."
She turned to him. "How do you know what I want?"
There were tears in her eyes. "I mean, what were the last five months about, Michael? Just a romp in the hay, is that it."
"Don't be ridiculous. I love you."
"You love me but you'd let me go away?"
"What do you want?" he said. "That's what matters."
"I don't know what I want. I told them I wasn't sure — that I wanted to think about it. Shit, of course I don't want to stay here forever. But is this job more important than you? What is it with us?"
"Listen," he said. Suddenly, he knew what he must say. "You've got to take the job. Because we're going to live in London, you and I."
Did she believe him? Would he believe him, if he were her?
"Listen," he said again. He had not planned any of this but now the half-formed wishes that had come to him night after night as he lay awake filled his mouth in an urgent rush of words. "I'm going to tell Moira. And I'll speak to Eamonn McKenna, my solicitor, about getting a divorce. I want you to go in there tomorrow and tell them you're going to London to see Somerville. You can still do that, can't you?"
"Yes," she said, "but listen, Michael —"
"No, you listen. If you go to London next week I'll come with you. Keogh's in London, he's the Yank in charge of all of our hotels in Europe. He's the one who asked me to come back here and manage the Clarence. I've done a good job and they know it. I'm sure he'll fix me up with something in London. It won't be a manager's job, of course."
"But if you're doing such a good job here they won't want you to leave."
"I don't care. If he says no, I'll come to London anyway. I'll find something."
She looked at him, then turned toward the dark currents of the river. It was as though he were no longer there. Suddenly, everything he had just said seemed foolish and impossible. They had never really talked about a future together. His thoughts of leaving Moira had been half-formed desires, not plans for action. He did not really know Andrea. She had come to Northern Ireland four years ago because her father, a Canadian engineer, had accepted a two-year contract with Short's, the aircraft people. When her parents returned to Canada she stayed on to finish her arts degree. There had been a boyfriend but Dillon did not know his name. She said she liked the Irish much better than the English "because they're more fun." But what was it she saw in him? He did not smoke pot or like rock concerts as she did. He was not knowing in bed as she was. He was married and hiding their affair from his wife. His job must seem boring to her. He was a failed poet in a business suit. And yet he believed — although he could not explain why — that she loved him. From the moment she had said it to him, here on the towpath, they had seen each other almost every day. Often they would meet for an hour and in a rush of desire go to the hotel, get a key, and make love in an unbooked room. Yet he did not think of this as an affair. He had never been unfaithful before. He was filled with the excitement of being in love and sick with the fear of losing her. He knew that girls her age got crushes on married men. And got over it.
She turned back from the dark currents of the river. "Is that what you really want, Michael?"
"You're sure? Don't say it unless you're sure."
"All right, then," she said, and kissed him.
Black became white. By voicing his daydreams he had made them real. "I love you," he said.
She took his hand and they walked on. "What about Moira? Will she stay on, if you leave?"
"I think so. She's never been happy anywhere else."
"What will she do?"
"I don't know. Maybe settle in full-time, selling that jewelry and junk stuff."
"Could she make a living at it?"
"I don't know."
They rounded a bend in the river and saw a red sky ahead. On the horizon long veils of black smoke drifted toward them.
"Is that in the city?" she asked.
"No, it's in the other direction. Out by Lisburn."
"Is it a fire, do you think?"
"It's probably deliberate," he said. "Farmers burning stubble."
"It's late. Maybe we should go back."
"Wait. Let's sit a minute. Please?"
To their left, he saw a break in the hedge. They went through it into a field of long grass. He tested the ground for dampness before they sat down, then lay back, looking up at the red sky. "I can't wait to get away. Bloody place. I never wanted to come back here."
They laughed, together. "Yes, I believe I've mentioned that before."
"Like a thousand times."
He turned to her, meaning to kiss her. At once she pulled him down, kissing him in a fever as though they would begin to make love. But when he slid his hand along her thigh she held it in a restraining grip. "You're sure about this, Michael."
"Of course I'm sure. It's the best thing that ever happened to me."
She released him and lay back in the grass. "When will you tell her?"
"I'll move out. I'll take a room in the hotel until you and I go to London."
"What if they tell you you have to stay here?"
"I told you. I'll go anyway."
She sat up again, hands locked around her knees. "I'm scared. Aren't you?"
"No. I'm happy."
"Well, if you're happy ..." She turned to look at him. "I wish it were over. I mean, I wish we were in London right now. You won't back out, will you? I mean, if you do, I wouldn't blame you. I'm not married. It's different for me."
He reached up and caught hold of her, felt her body, tense, almost trembling. "Listen," he said. "Do you realize that after tonight we can be together all the time? Tomorrow, when I move into the hotel, you can join me."
"Yes, I could, couldn't I?"
He felt her body relax. She kissed him, then stood up, brushing burrs from her jeans. She turned to look down at him, then stretched out her hand, pulling him to his feet.
As they walked back up the lane which led to the car-park, several couples were coming down, courting the coming darkness. In the car-park there were now twice as many cars as before. When he unlocked the door of his own car it came to him that this was the end of secret meetings, of lying in long grasses, sitting in parked cars, making love in empty hotel rooms. And an end to his evenings with Moira, waiting for her to go up to bed or take her shower so that he could slip out and make his nightly phone call. And, as though to remind him of those frustrations, when they drove back to Mountjoy Avenue all the lights were on upstairs in the house, which meant her flatmates were at home. So they sat in the car and he kissed her again.
"When will we meet tomorrow?" she said.
"Can you be at the hotel at seven?"
"We could have dinner together. A celebration."
"It won't be a celebration, Michael. Not for you. I remember when I broke up with my boyfriend. I was happy I'd done it, but ..."
"Who was that boyfriend?" he said. "Maybe now you can tell me?" She laughed. "Past history. Doesn't matter."
She kissed him. "Do you know what I'm worrying about? What if she won't let you go? I wouldn't."
He laughed. "I'll see you in the lobby of the Clarence at seven."
"At seven." She got out of the car and ran up to her front door. He watched her unlock the door, hoping she would turn and wave to him. He waited. She turned, waved, and went in.
Excerpted from "Lies of Silence"
Copyright © 1990 Brian Moore.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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