The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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Recognising the wisdom of Geoff's advice, Jimmy spent the next fortnight very quietly, presenting a blandly innocent face to the world at large. On two occasions he was grimly amused to catch a glimpse of Al Capone, who made no attempt to conceal his interest in Jimmy's movements. It seemed a surprisingly gentle and tactful way of hinting that Jimmy would be wise to toe the line.
The visit to Mallory Park went off smoothly, perhaps in part because Jimmy elected to use his unique sports car, taking a roundabout route to the Leicester area. Simon travelled with him, much impressed both by the car and by Jimmy's handling of it. There was no sign of the bodyguards and Jimmy was amused at the thought of their dismay at the prospect of trying to keep up with a real racing car.
Sandy took third place in the trophy race, having dropped back from the lead when the brakes began to play up again. Simon suggested that it would be a good idea to rebuild the whole system, taking advantage of the lull in the Formula Three programme. Sandy's reaction to this suggestion was odd. He opened his mouth to say something, changed his mind and compromised by grinning weakly. Simon made no comment at the time, but was noticeably thoughtful for some while afterwards.
The day of departure for Monaco came at last and Jimmy set out with a cheerful determination to enjoy the trip as fully as his duties allowed. The starting point was the Kings Cross bus station, a drab building in a depressing area, but there was no depression among the crowd who were assembling inside it. The tour passengers were of all sorts and descriptions. Some of the younger men were getting together in groups, making friends rapidly, while older men showed more reserve, watching the scene before committing themselves. There were married couples of all ages, also forming into groups. An air of anticipation was obvious but there was little in the way of openly expressed excitement. After all, it was still quite early in the morning.
Jimmy had half expected to see Al Capone lurking about, juts to keep an eye on things, but there was no sign of him. There was no sign of Simon, either, which was more worrying. The two coaches backed into position ready for departure and Jimmy began to wish he had arranged to pick Simon up in Finchley. It would be galling if he disappeared at the very last moment before he was due to leave.
Just as Jimmy was considering whether to ring Simon's home, the missing traveller hurried in rather breathlessly. He explained that the had been working late the night before to clear up some loose ends and had forgotten to pack his bag. This lapse came as a relief to Jimmy, who had begun to feel that Simon was almost inhumanly efficient.
There had been little to pack as they had agreed to travel light, with nothing more than hand luggage. This meant that they could board one of the coaches and relax in comfort while others waited for bags and suitcases to be stowed away. Some seemed to be taking a surprising amount for such a brief trip and many looked far too smartly dressed for the occasion, as Simon pointed out with a chuckle. 'They won't be so smart by the time we get there, while we won't be much scruffier than we are now.'
The coaches filled up, while two couriers scurried about checking off names. After some apparent absentees had been found lingering by the coffee machine and a couple of very late arrivals had panted up the ramp in the nick of time, the journey began. The first stage, to Southend Airport, offered little in the way of attractive scenery, but there was enough going on inside the coach to make this unimportant. As they passed through Hackney one of the couriers picked up a microphone and introduced himself as Tim.
After a few words of welcome he outlined the tour schedule, adding, 'We've got a pretty big exercise on our hands, as we're ferrying more than fifteen hundred passengers to Monaco this weekend on one tour or another, so we have to be reasonably organised in the way we set about it. This particular tour is taking about a hundred people and we'll be dividing you into two parties for the run from Ostend to Monaco according to the hotels you're going to. I'll tell you which party you're in when I come round to check passports.'
The announcement caused a buzz of excited conversation, but Jimmy was silent. It was bad enough that he and Simon had been allocated rooms in different hotels, but it now seemed that they might even travel in different coaches. Much to his relief he found that this was not the case. He was tempted to ask Tim if there was any chance of changing the hotel rooms, but Simon might have thought this a bit odd. After all, they were supposed to be no more to each other than casual acquaintances who shared an interest in motor racing.
This was only one aspect of a basic difficulty which Jimmy had to face. Unless and until Simon chose to speak of his problems, Jimmy must feign ignorance of them. He must also remembers that Simon would be on the alert for trouble and might misinterpret the most innocent of remarks or actions.
Despite the strain he must be feeling, Simon seemed particularly relaxed and he was also more talkative than ever. After a while, Jimmy realised that this was no more than a camouflage for Simon's inner thoughts. His words were coherent enough but even the most casual and banal remarks were linked by a more serious undercurrent, in which the prominent theme seemed to be the right way to react to dangerous situations.
Once he understood this key fact, Jimmy found the conversation fascinating. Simon was evidently one of those hypersensitive people whose awareness of their surroundings is particularly vivid. Such sensitivity can produce either genius or insanity and sometimes both in combination, but a few who possess it learn to channel and divert their awareness in a way that produces a perilous stability. The process is neither easy nor painless, but the result is a rare brilliance.
While Jimmy understood all this in theory, he had never encountered such a person before and he could see only too clearly why he had failed to understand Simon's outlook at first.
By the time they reached the airport, Simon had begun to show his inner thoughts a little more clearly, but it was not until they were in their seats and the aircraft was rolling gently out towards the takeoff point that he spoke with real frankness. 'Flying used to scare me stiff. I'd sit calculating the chances of a vital component failing, working up a sweat over my conclusions. When the brakes came off and the acceleration pushed me back into my seat, I'd be completely petrified. It was most embarrassing.'
'I don't see why.' Jimmy was carefully casual. 'A lot of people are worried at takeoff. You aren't unique.'
'Yes, but they're scared in a more general way, mainly because they've been told takeoff is the most dangerous time. I was visualising specifics. Then I saw that I was only looking on the black side and started thinking of the fact that escape is always possible. I made up my mind that I'd be one of the lucky few and after that I stopped worrying.'
'Literally?' Jimmy sounded doubtful and Simon laughed merrily.
'It sounds crazy, doesn't it? But it worked and I've found the technique just as useful in other ways since then.'
He showed no inclination to expand on this cryptic remark and before Jimmy could encourage him to explain, the engines were running up for takeoff. It seemed better to let the mater rest for a while. As the plan climbed into the clouds over the Thames Estuary, Jimmy decided that Simon's enemies were playing a losing game. Their quarry was the perfect optimist, who could think almost any danger out of existence. Their psychological battle could never succeed, but it might be a different matter if they turned from threats to direct action. Optimism can be dangerous in real warfare.
Ostend airport was once very picturesque but not very efficient. The new terminal buildings have changed all that and very soon after landing the travellers were gathering around the Belgian coaches which were to take them the rest of the way, some greeting the drivers as old friends, calling then Willy, Roger and so on. Baggage was stowed and the two groups were disentangled from each other. Half an hour later everyone was eating lunch in a cafe near the harbour. Tim had explained that the long journey south would begin at about three in the afternoon and that they should reach Paris by eight. Another meal would be taken there, but it would be a good idea to 'stoke up' in preparation for the trip.
Over lunch, Jimmy was content to watch the passing traffic, leaving Simon free to exercise his powers of mental arithmetic. 'Paris in five hours. That's about sixty kilometres an hour. Say forty miles an hour on the road, with twenty minutes allowed for stops. I suppose we do stop somewhere.'
'I hope so.' Jimmy chuckled lazily. 'Five hours can be a long time.'
'The autoroute helps after Lille, of course. Up to there...'
Simon stopped abruptly and Jimmy was instantly alert. He saw that his companion was staring out of the window with an expression of startled surprise, which seemed to be connected with a yellow Lotus Elan which was just passing. The driver was concealed by the hard top, but Simon eye's followed it with an odd intensity.
When it was out of sight he went on talking as if nothing had happened. 'Up to there, the roads are no so hot. Mind you, we have to cover almost eight hundred miles in less than twenty-four hours, so we can't afford to hang about. Tim told me they did the run in twenty one and a half hours once, but that was during the French strikes in 1968, when the roads were almost empty.'
Listening with half an ear, Jimmy wondered why Simon had been so startled to see the yellow Lotus. He felt an urgent desire to ask questions, but it was clear that Simon had no intention of talking about the matter.
Jimmy made no particular plans to cope with possible threats during the journey, because he found it difficult to visualise what form such threats might take. Simon would probably be safe enough while he was on the coach. The other people aboard seemed harmless enough and it would be difficult for one of them to escape undetected and unidentified even if he attempted to do anything violent. Drastic measures like wrecking the coach seemed unlikely because of the impossibility of making sure of the effect on any individual passenger. The dangerous times would be when the coach stopped anywhere and Jimmy regarded the halt in Paris with particular concern.
When they left the cafe, there was still an hour to spare for shopping and sightseeing and Simon clearly intended to make the most of the chance to look around Ostend. Jimmy would have been happier to see him sitting safely in the coach and was relieved when the time for departure arrived. He was a little alarmed to find that the coaches had been left standing in the car park near the harbour, unlocked and apparently unattended, but one of the drivers assured him with a smile that they always managed to keep an eye on things, however inconspicuously. These Belgian drivers are all wily and amusing characters, able to make themselves understood in several languages and equally able to pretend not to understand if that suits them better. They never miss a trick when it comes to a meal stop or a refuelling deal and they can drive all day without apparent fatigue.
Even these wily characters, however, can only achieve a moderate speed on the road down to Menin and this part of the trip took more than an hour. Then there was a long wait at the frontier, not because of customs but because some of the party wanted to patronise the money changers who operate in curious shops lining the street between French and Belgian border posts, dealing warily with the women who work out their transactions on slates. Simon was amused by the slates, saying that they ensured that no permanent record was left, but he was impressed at the speed with which the calculations were made. Jimmy suspected that there might be enough profit without the need for subterfuge and was not surprised when Simon pronounced the calculations accurate.
After all this it was nearly five before they reached the big town of Lille and Simon was disappointed. Two of the scheduled five hours had passed with only a quarter of the distance completed. He said they would never get to Monaco at this rate, but as the coach began to bowl along the motorway he brought out a stopwatch and was quite ridiculously delighted by what it told him.
'It's incredible! An absolutely regular speed of ninety kilometres an hour. What's that in miles an hour? Fifty six? Near enough. At this rate, we should get to Paris just about the time Tim said.'
Jimmy was barely listening. He was glad that Simon, in the right hand seat next to the window, was occupying his mind in this way. A yellow Lotus had slipped past in the fast lane and though it might not have been the one that had startled Simon in Ostend, he might have been worried to see it. Jimmy made a mental note of the number in case they saw it again. There was nothing particularly unusual about a British registered sports car heading south at that time. There would be many such cars making for Monaco from all over Europe. This one was perhaps a little late, most preferring to reach Monaco in time for Thursday practice, but there could be many reasons for that.
A sense of excitement was already growing among the coach party as they passed one landmark after another. Not that there were too many landmarks on the long and featureless Autoroute du Nord. It is a fairly fast road, cutting brashly across the shallow valleys of the Somme and Oise, battlefields of the First World War, but there is little to see on the way.
The approach to Paris, on the other hand, is spectacular. Passing Le Bourget airport, the road swings left to dive into the cutting which carries it straight into the heart of the city at the Porte de la Chapelle. While they were running down this stretch, Tim announced that they would be stopping in Montmartre for one hour. Jimmy grimaced. Montmartre is not as notorious as it used to be, but it is not an ideal spot for someone whose main ambition is to avoid trouble at all costs.
Simon showed no sign of sharing Jimmy's worries. He seemed carefree and cheerful and when the coach pulled up in the Place Blanche he gestured towards the Moulin Rouge and said it was a pity they were stopping for such a short time. Faintly surprised, Jimmy decided that a new and much more likeable aspect of his companion's personality was beginning to emerge. Perhaps the fact that he had actually started the journey to Monaco, in spite of everything, had eased some of the pressures he had been feeling.
From the moment they left the coach, Jimmy was alert for trouble. As they crossed the street towards the cafeteria Tim had recommended, he lagged behind a little and that enabled him to spot two men who nudged each other inconspicuously as Simon passed. They made no move to follow him, but it was clear that trouble could be expected after the meal. Jimmy found himself in a serious dilemma. If he warned Simon, he would have to explain why he saw danger in so slight an incident. To make the explanation convincing he might have to say a lot more than he wanted to. That might make further explanations necessary.
Halfway through the meal, he had an inspiration. Muttering a vague excuse, he slipped away to talk to a group of the younger members of the party who were sitting at a nearby table. They were in no mood to be critical and their eyes began to gleam when he said he was expecting trouble. They readily agreed to help and to say nothing to Simon.
Jimmy's plan was simple. The fairly large main room of the cafeteria was linked to the street entrance by a narrower section containing the serving counter and the exit passage, the two being divided by a low railing. The cash desk was strategically placed to command the exit passage. When they were all ready to leave, they formed a queue at the cash desk, Jimmy making sure that Simon was well to the rear. The young men paid their bills, but paused just beyond the desk, apparently arguing over the way the cost had been shared. When Jimmy and Simon joined them the whole party moved off in a tight group, with Jimmy at the rear and Simon slightly ahead of him.
All this happened so smoothly that Jimmy was sure Simon would notice nothing and when they reached the street he was ready for anything. The two men were standing near the door and when they saw Simon they began to stage a fight, no doubt intending to involve Simon and possibly other members of the party. All Jimmy had to do was to push Simon ahead into the middle of the group, which closed round him. Almost as an afterthought, he deftly hooked a foot around the nearest man's ankle, making him stumble forward and push his confederate against the wall. By the time the two men had sorted themselves out, Simon was well clear and the immediate danger was over.
All Jimmy wanted after that was to get Simon back into the comparative safety of the coach, but Simon had other ideas, strolling along the Boulevard de Clichy as if nothing had happened. Catching him up, Jimmy remarked rather tentatively that they had been lucky not to get involved in the fight.
Simon looked at him with an infuriatingly bland smile. 'Luck is always important, you know, Jimmy. It can make all the difference between living and dying. Why worry when your luck is good? Here we are, enjoying the pleasures of an evening stroll in Paris. Why not make the most of it?'
He strolled on, looking with interest at the busy scene around him. Jimmy followed, feeling slightly foolish. He suspected that Simon was perfectly well aware of what had happened and was quite confident that he would have been able to deal with the matter without outside assistance. Euphoria in the face of danger may be an asset to assault troops in time of war, but in a valuable young scientist facing a rather vague threat it seemed a good deal less desirable.
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|