Luke was in Norfolk. So he went to King’s Cross and caught a train to King’s Lynn and there he climbed into a taxi and told the driver to take him to the slipway at Brancaster.
It was mid-afternoon and the low tide was on the turn. He and Luke waded across the infant channel to stand by Fisherman, which listed on the hard sand. Fisherman had a brand new engine, housed in a grey wooden box in the rear, and a mast to the front of the boat. Decking ran between the mast and the bow, and below the deck was a dark triangle storage space for a spare sail, a bucket, fishing rods and mackerel lines. She was splayed and shallow and she rolled alarmingly in any sort of sea but for the inland lagoons and channels of the marshes she was perfect.
They stood like race horse owners in the paddock, tongue-tied beside their machine, waiting for the tide.
“Sea trials” said Luke, rubbing his hands.
Fingers of sea water, foam flecked, began to move up the grooves in the sand. His feet become wet. The belly of the channel swelled, the water invading the land. An old man walked past in shorts and a polo shirt, following the channel and pulling behind him a younger man – brown, handsome and polished – sitting in a tiny dinghy. The older man was tall and grey haired and Alex recognised him as a mining entrepreneur he had once raised money from for the anti-euro campaign. He had been summoned one morning to his offices in Knightsbridge, where he was kept waiting in an ante-room. An entourage of foreign men in shining suits disappeared into a lift. Phones rang and were promptly answered. A long legged girl asked him to follow her to an empty board room.
“Mr – will be with you in a moment.”
Minutes later the entrepreneur appeared. He addressed Alex from the doorway. He wore a pair of suit trousers, a pale blue shirt with a monogram on his left breast, a dark blue tie.
“I am currently holding two simultaneous meetings” he explained, with deliberately understated self-importance. He rocked slowly on the balls of his feet. He gave the impression of someone operating at full stretch, at the peak of his ability.
“Forgive me if I have little time”.
Alex gave him his elevator pitch.
The entrepreneur listened carefully.
“I will give you £10,000” he said. “I am a busy man. I cannot get any more involved. Now I am afraid I must resume my other meeting”.
And there he was, wading away from him under an oyster sky, pulling a man in a dinghy.
“Isn’t that _?”
Luke thought so.
“He’s buying all the land he can in North Norfolk. Do you think it will be safe in his hands?”
Alex said that he didn’t have a clue.
“Who do you think is in the dinghy?”
They speculated. A house guest, perhaps. A recent acquisition. A well placed person: he looked like a foreigner.
“We should have all been investment bankers” sighed Luke theatrically.
“You mean we should have been more focused and less idle when we were at university?” Alex replied.
“Yes, I do. We should have been more calculating.”
“But I like what we were at university. And what we weren’t.”
Luke shook his head.
“No. I now wish that I had done the Milk Round and become an investment banker.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Money is freedom.”
“Freedom to pull your house guest against the current?”
“Freedom to buy up the Norfolk coastline. To have house guests. Or not.”
“But doesn’t it matter how you make your money?”
Luke shrugged. He ran a social enterprise in Romania. This made him prone to exasperation.
“What’s the point of trying to set up a ‘good’ business – why bother to go to the trouble?”
“Isn’t most business ‘good’ in the sense that it creates jobs and generates wealth? Big business isn’t evil – it is just big and therefore accident prone and conforming. Capitalism is the best there is, it just needs to keep adapting.”
“That’s what I’m saying” said Luke, who liked an argument.
“Compromise and take the dollar. Does it really matter what you do? You can’t change anything for the better so just get rich and laugh along with everyone else.”
He played a straight bat.
“You can change things for the better and the act of trying is life affirming and positive and you don’t have to be financially independent or a purist to do so – a shelf stacker at Sainsbury’s and a Vice President at Shell can make a difference if they want to, and isn’t that as it should be?”
But Luke was happy driving his argument.
“Yes, everyone is robotic and I should do that too: get rich with no responsibilities. Don’t bother trying to start a ‘good’ business: it’s just a struggle with minimal reward. If it came off it might improve the life of thousands, but it’s too difficult so just give it up.”
“You are missing, or ignoring, my point” said Alex.
“Very few people are ‘robotic’, most want to do something with their lives, most also follow a conformist route through life and compromise by making a difference where they can: buying certain types of products, helping a charity, consciously being a good friend. All of which, by the way, you are guilty of, even when you think you are doing nothing.”
Luke made a scornful face and sang.
“Let’s make lots of MONEEE”.
“Anyway, you would have made a crap banker”.
The water had reached their knees. Fisherman stirred. He and Luke stood by the boat watching the entrepreneur straining against the tide. They understood now that he was heading for a small day cruiser; an ugly tall cabin of green glass planted on a white plastic hull. The entrepreneur leaned forward to pull the boat against the gathering current. He was almost there.
Fishermen was almost free. They climbed aboard and sat waiting for the rising water to lift her off the sand. More people began to pass them, perched in tiny tenders with screaming outboard engines, or working hard in kayaks, making for boats moored out in the current. Fisherman began to pull on her mooring, and Luke started the engine. Standing up on the bow deck, one hand on the varnished mast, Alex looked out over the golf course where his father had played for the last time. Four men were putting out on the ninth green.
Out in the lagoon they passed a red trawler out of King’s Lynn. Its deck was piled high with mussels.
“Fuck” said Luke.
Steam was streaming out of the engine housing. The engine had overheated. He removed the housing and unscrewed the cap on the water tank and grey water, piping hot, geysered into the air. Luke cursed the new engine. He cursed the boat yard. Afterwards there was the gentle sound of water against the hull, and the ticking of the hot engine.
“We’d better get out the sail while she cools off” said Luke.
“Do you think that would have happened if we were investment bankers?”
“We would have a yacht” Luke speculated.
“Too shallow for a yacht.”
“If we were investment bankers we would be in the office.”
“This place is too cold for investment bankers. We would be fair weather sailors swanning around the Caribbean.”
They had exhausted this line of attack, and fell silent. The breeze was slight. The water slapped against Fisherman’s hull. At last he broke the silence.
“I’m going to Argentina in a few days.”
Luke looked up.
“Yes. I’m going on a recce.”
“Why not Africa?”
“Clara says the boys are too young for Africa.”
“What are you going to do in Argentina?”
The brittle gold of autumn,
the sun’s low slung shine,
the melancholy of leaves parted from their trees.
The expatriate’s song.
The towers of a silver city,
squared against the river mouth.
The suburbs, grassland going away, wild,
Jogging down to the shore,
where gendarmes were training
near the clay tennis courts of the high command,
he tasted the muddy, slapping sea.
Square miles of fresh water,
A miracle! The future made safe for invaders
but deadly for those who showed themselves, curious,
out of the marsh.
In a bar gloomy with tobacco
and municipal beer aromas
he ate beef steak, in whose blood he soaked
his Friday bread,
he drank the Malbec wine.
Full and feeling more European
he spent the afternoon touring empty houses,
fingering their filthy swimming pools,
the bars on their windows.
The estate agent chided him.
She had not seen a foreigner for months,
she explained the fine temptation of a golf course.
A marina where white boats were moored
among stationary yellow leaves.
In this gated community her grandson son fished
on decking above his very own artificial lake.
She was so proud; the boy’s school had security guards,
‘crazy!’ she nodded, howling with laughter
He shut a garden gate
on another heavy dog pulling its tether,
the garden littered with autumn leaves.
On a maid trapped in a yellow window.
Where were the owners? he asked.
The estate agent racked her vocabulary;
they were in Europe,
the economy was to blame,
winter was coming.
Didn’t he know, she beamed
things had been absolutely terrible!
On Saturday he rode the commuter train.
The faces of the young men were dark;
a boy and girl kissed, darkly.
Rain fell on the race course,
the container docks, the old iron
of the railway terminal.
At Retiro Station the men leapt
the turnstiles like antelopes
and scattered into its imperial shadow.
Dispossessed mothers guarding
the war memorials begged him,
girls working the pedestrians on
Avenue Florida followed him,
a gold-painted man revealed himself
stock still, a lack of ambition he had seen one hundred times.
Boutiques, each hawking
the grace under pressure of the estancia,
granted him shelter.
Cashmere in tall columns,
checked shirts folded in tissue paper,
rows of waxed jackets, tweed coats,
mannequins in jodphurs, their bulbed groins.
This narrative repeated up Avenue Florida
like the blue ridges of the pampas, a rich man’s
epic of river work and horsemanship, of cigars and fine alcohol.
the people here call themselves Los Porteños,
but all the nervous energy is inside of here.
It’s about land, I think, this place is about
what you own, and what you don’t have.
It’s a fine city, the raw materials are fine
but I can’t see any of my faces here.
The deals this city has done with itself,
these are none of my business.
Its problems are not mine,
and I am doubtful that it’s good enough for you.
I miss you.
I miss our boys.
Inside the white-walled airport terminal there was kiosk selling the Financial Times. At passport control a tearful girl embraced her parents. Her father wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. The girl did not look back at him. He imagined kissing Fred goodbye as he walked – a man – towards the rest of the world. Shortly, Jake followed. His two men out in the world, and Clara and he left sailing their week-end boat on the deadly brown tide of the River Plate.
As the British Airways 747 left the ground he fought off a sense of confinement, an apprehension of the vast ocean they must cross. He lost himself in the rituals of economy class: the careful census of territory, the totting-up of the distractions available to him, the steady ingestion of food and alcohol. The Financial Times became a noisy piece of detritus at his feet. He could not find a film he wanted to watch. Time travelled slowly.
Across the aisle sat a young Argentine drinking whisky and coke and reading an academic text, a pencil playing in his hand. Empty miniatures of whisky accumulated on the tray of the vacant window seat. He was tall and slight and short haired, and he had the air of someone let loose on the world; he was getting drunk, he would see if anyone stopped him. Whenever he got out of his chair to fetch more drink, or to take a leak, he disturbed the girl sitting in front of him. She had boarded at Sao Paulo and she was black-haired, with alabaster skin and pale, turned lips. Whenever the boy got up out of his seat the girl was jolted forwards. Ditto when he returned. How irritated she must be by the Argentine, he thought. How beautiful she was. The plane lurched and bumped in turbulence and he fastened his seat belt.
When he woke up it was light and the Argentine boy and the girl were sitting together. She had moved into the window seat; the whisky bottles had been cleared away. The boy and girl were whispering. Her pale lips broke into a smile. Artfully, the Argentine examined the contents of her handbag. They giggled over a childish key ring; her identity card; her lipstick. Mobile phones were exchanged, inspected, and returned. The European light attached itself to the girl’s fine black hair. As he watched they became intimate. When they looked sad, he assumed that only one of them was staying in London, and the other was flying on to university at Lisbon or Barcelona. When they looked happy, it was because they had worked out how they would spend the rest of the day, and where they would stay that night. Over the girl’s shoulder, sunshine poured into the plane. As the wheels of the Boeing 747 caught the Heathrow tarmac the boy was stroking her hair; she was stroking his forearm with her long fingers. The world had changed.
Later that morning he stood in the kitchen of their rented cottage, listening to the radio while he prepared lunch. A pan of water bubbled below two artichokes which he had squeezed into a steel steamer. He was making a vinaigrette. Clara was having a bath; next door the boys were playing with their lego. Radio pips announced the lunchtime news. An Air France 747 had gone missing somewhere over the Atlantic, announced the newsreader. Flight 447, with 228 passengers and crew on-board, had been en route to Paris from Sao Paulo. The Air France pilot had reported bad weather then nothing more had been heard. He listened carefully. His flight had been one hour ahead of the Air France jet. He remembered the turbulence; he closed his mind to emigration.