By now it is late afternoon, early evening, so instead of working, Irene forces herself to sit in her old sofa. The leather is still squeaky new, though it had been upholstered over a year ago. Susan has left the teapot full on the side-table and has withdrawn on her mistress’ orders, and the Guards have been instructed not to let anybody disturb Her Excellency. While she sips her scalding hot tea, Irene misses her cat, Gigi, who had found a new home with the Cook, Mrs. Belzwynski. She sighs. Her chambers are very quiet, but a selection of beautiful lamps make them bright and cheery. Irene had never noticed how calm her chambers are this time of day.
Half closing her eyelashes, Irene tries to imagine she is at her old apartment, alone, as always. But the situation is too different. These chambers are too high, the windows huge, the walls incredibly far away. The couch is too hard. And though they are invisible, she senses the ongoing presence of her Guards, and suddenly and poignantly misses her old freedom of movement. She fully understands why S. wants to go incognito so often, just walking out like that, and though she cannot disregard the Captain’s precautions, she would like to slip away and be just Irene Delwin, the secretary, however tedious her old life could be. ‘But I will never be able to return to my former position. I will never be just a secretary anymore... They wouldn’t accept me, and I also probably couldn’t... I’d be too much used to being in charge... What on earth can I be if I am relieved of this duty? Who would I be, when no longer in function? I’ve not had any private life the past year, I have no friends any longer...’
- ‘The Secretary of STATE will be obsolete soon.’
Where does that thought come from, so clear and sudden? For a moment, Irene suspects STATE, but no, the thought is indigenous, welling up inside as a certainty, not a question.
Sure enough, things of state are changing, slipping rapidly into disarray. The absolute control the Head of State used to have is crumbling away every day, new powers proliferating to fill the void. Never in recent history has there been such turmoil in this country, such conflict of opinions. At the bakeries, at the hairdressers’, even in bus stops, people can be heard debating. Pro-STATE, anti-STATE, pro-democracy, anti-democracy, pro-elections or pro-central control, each defending their opinions, more and more people start to form one themselves, however tentatively at first. Never was there such an activity of publication, both in print and on dataFlow and on National TV. There are pro-STATE publishing companies and those opposing STATE, there are OCCs and pamphlets and websites and...
Though Irene forces her body to be the picture of quiet relaxation, tension builds inside. ‘This is not it... I am lying to myself to occupy my mind with this. Affairs of state do not bother me so personally...’ and then she knows. ‘I have to go him, now...’ The Captain must be somewhere close, locked in with his reminiscences. Irene realizes that she had never visited his chambers uninvited. ‘Can I just go and visit him? He does not want me to, I suppose... But I have to know how he is,’ For a moment she recoils from the idea of visiting him now, so personally, so intrusive of his private space. ‘I am afraid to approach him,’ she knows; and as always the desire to challenge her fears activates. ‘If I am afraid, I should go to him, now.’ She tries to picture how she will find him, surmises he will not be his most presentable. ‘So what! I cannot leave him to alcohol and other resources, when I am responsible for his current state of mind. I pushed him to appear before the Committee, I should check how he is.’
The Guards jump up and salute her as the Secretary unexpectedly exits her rooms, but she indicates them at ease. She walks over to corridors to the Captain’s door and hesitates briefly. A Guard is posted there as well, to keep everybody out.
“I have a question for the Captain, in private,” she says. Without waiting for assent, her hand reaches for the doorknob. It is a breach of Etiquette, to be sure. The Guard wavers, but he dares not physically counter Her Excellency, though he is pretty sure the Captain will not want her of all people to see him like this. Caught, he does not open the door for the Secretary of STATE, as he normally would, but he does not block her entrance either.
Inside, a solid silence.
First, Irene spots the bottle of scotch, the glass half empty.
“Your Excellency!” the Captain says somberly as he stands with some difficulty to show her respect as she approaches him. “What”
“No, Captain. I come as Irene, just Irene. Remember? Irene Delwin, kneeling by the Bearer in a full copy room not so long ago...”
“Go away, Irene,” the Captain says bitterly. “You do not want to see... You do not want to know”
“But I do know, already,” Irene says as she seats herself opposite him in a sturdy reaLeather high-backed chair.
Her voice gentle, she voices his worst nightmare. “I saw you today, on NationalTV.” The Captain had not dared to ask his men if Her Excellency had watched him confess, though to his relief he had gathered that Her Grace had forbade all Guards to watch it real time. Of course they might do so later, and of course STATE knows all there is to know, he can accept that. ‘But I had hoped she, Irene, at least, would still view me as she had always done, would still confide in me as she used to...’ Sick of how she must look at him now, he takes his glass and almost empties it in one gulp.
Today, out of character, once he had opened his mouth, he had kept on talking, almost without control, as his mind could not impose any order or logic on the deeds he had facilitated, the acts he had taken part in. For him, it was one of the most scary aspects of today’s confession, how apparently, part of his mind had stored the atrocities and poured them out on this one occasion, while having hid them for more than a year. He felt utterly betrayed by his thinking capacities, the intellect he prided himself in. ‘Who am I now? How can I keep up who I am?’
“I am afraid,” Irene says softly. Enraged, he turns at her: “Yes, I know! Of me. Of ME! That is why I went against you and Her Grace, Irene! That’s why I did not want to confess! Because I could not face the prospect of you knowing! And now, you are”
Irene’s clear voice interrupts him: “Afraid, yes, but not of you! Never of you!” Surprised, he looks at her face, the first time since she entered. She looks back at him, very seriously, her eyes not wavering from his, as always. ‘As if nothing had changed!’
“You lie,” he says uncertainly, but Irene shakes her head in an almost childlike negation. “No, Captain, believe me! Though to know... what you have done... It is... It’s terrible...”
Vividly, his mind flashes back to the things he had talked about, in front of the Committee. Terrible, indeed: gory, bloody actions, which became all the more perverted now the context they were committed in had disappeared, had become history.
“But that was another role, Captain. Another you,” Irene is saying. He is silent for a moment, but he cannot leave it at that. “That is a very easy way out, Irene!” he says, “I cannot escape judgment so easily!”
“The Committee is not about judgment, Captain!” Irene says, her voice more sharp than she meant it to be. “It is about having one honest record of what the past has done, and then to let go.”
“I cannot let go of the treason inside of me, Irene!” the Captain says harshly. “I cannot reconcile my past with my present. And as for the future...”
Irene looks at him and her face softens: “It is for the future that I am afraid, Captain. For you, and for me, but most of all for STATE and for the state... Where is this country going to? Are the changes for the better, or, on the contrary? And then... What will our future be, after STATE?”
Beaten, the strong torso of the Captain slumps. He stares into the bottom of whiskey he holds with both hands between his knees.
“It is for the future we must find a way to reconcile ourselves with ourselves, Captain,” Irene says: “that’s why I forced you to open up! You have to make space for the future, Captain... I know you can. Not today, of course. But one day...” She is reassuring herself as much as she is reassuring him, and Irene has a keen ear for the measure of uncertainty in her own voice. ‘But maybe this will console him, in part. If even just a tiny bit...’
She stands to leave him when she suddenly adds: “There is something else you should know,” Her tone is different, and he looks up at her to see what she means.
Irene sits down again. She had not intended to tell him now, and she has to organize her words. “You know, about the Countess...”
The Captain grimaces, though in a way it is good to remember the aggression of Her Grace. He gets up and takes a glass from his cabinet and pours Irene some scotch as well, with a lot of ice as she likes that. “Yes..?”
“I know you think it was just some kind of unconnected violence, that... what happened...”
“Well, it was, wasn’t it?”
Her eyes flash blue. “I don’t think so! The Countess wasn’t who she seemed to be, Captain”
“Oh? Was a violent terrorist in a former life, huh?” As soon as the words slip out he regrets them, and they are present in the room for a while.
Irene fidgets with the ice cubes and drinks a sip. ‘I still do not know for sure...’ “I have no evidence, Captain... just conjectures... Maybe I shouldn’t”
‘She is almost never so insecure anymore... So... Charming,’ “Please do tell me, Irene, what you think?”
“The Countess was Matil, Captain.”
“What!? Hahahah! That... That... Come on, you really think that... the Countess? You make me laugh! Why?”
“After Her Grace came to the Parliament, and the Guard had found the Countess strangled, there was the presentation on the screen... different kinds of data, in different colours: with red data revealing the structure of Matil... Suddenly clear... She never before was able to know anything connected to him, and then she strangles the Countess and POP! she knows everything... Everything! Mc Kinsey”
“Yes, yes, let’s trust him, shall we! Like he should know! Ha! It is too absurd, this! Really, Irene...”
With a jerky movement, the Captain rises again and walks over to the cabinet, takes out a new bottle. Irene looks on. ‘He doesn’t believe me, like I knew he would... Why was I so stupid as to tell him? I decided I would never tell, and now I did, and that today... Why am I so daft...’ She finishes her drink with one gulp and rises to go.
“Irene! Please stay a little longer... Oh... shouldn’t have laughed at you, I am sorry... Really! I do not take your opinions lightly, you know that... So.. This is serious?” He tries to sound like he listens to her, from respect. ‘The Countess, Matil? No way! Why would she?’ His mind rejects the information but it is so good to talk of something else for a moment...
“Captain. I know she performed all these good deeds, that she has helped also this administration enormously with generous gifts and support, but I have checked her ancestry, and the information is completely fake! She is no aristocrat, and she has found a way to enter this data on the ‘Net which is completely unrelated and unverified!”
“So what? There are more rich people”
“But she wasn’t rich when she started out, Captain! There are no sources of income”
“So she has found a way to keep more privacy! That can be bought, you know”
“What I want to tell you is that she has bought herself a good name, that she has funds which no one could look into, and connections from years and years, also with the President”
“Sure, who hasn’t, Irene! Really, I think you are getting a bit burned out”
Irene slams the glass on the table and rises: “Oh, so I am talking nonsense? That’s the easy way out, huh? Really! Open your mind, Captain! STATE does not kill for nothing. We have never heard anything from Matil since, have we? We are safe now because Matil is dead!
Maybe we really should trust STATE, Captain, because that is the only way! For once! Trust STATE, trust the Bearer of STATE!”
She leaves him as he is. Walking back she feels embarrassed of her intrusion and her subsequent anger, but still certain it had been the right thing to do. ‘It imbalanced the formality, to be sure... And he is maybe mad at me now... As I am mad at him for his unbelieving – though I knew in advance... But after seeing this strange woman with Her Grace, was it... this morning? I just’ Irene knows she will have to allow herself to adapt to changes, instantly, or she will be discarded like a fossil in the very near future. ‘If everything in the state is changing, so should I...’ she thinks, when she is respectfully accosted by a servant informing Her Excellency that Doctor Jan, Mr. De Brown and Professor Mc Kinsey are awaiting her in the small dining room. ‘Oh! Almost forgot,’ This dinner was planned to discuss strategies for her candidacy, but she never felt less like doing it. ‘What a waste of energy. I do not want to rule this country in my own right, I do not want to battle for the people’s favor, to present my best sides and hope the vote for me. What for... Whatever for. So I’d better tell them today, before they invest more time and energy,’
“Do not disturb the Captain!” she says, when the servant makes towards his chambers, and with a bow, he retreats from his door. “Just have his man servant serve him some dinner inside,” she adds, before entering her chambers and calls for Susan. ‘Whatever the changes, I will be dressed according to station. Always. For as long as it lasts.’
Luckily, the dinner did not take long, and Mc Kinsey is content when he arrives home and undresses for bed. ‘What a day! But all’s good when it ends good, I always say... And it is good that Irene still has her wits about her. Clever girl, she is, not to go for what De Brown has put on the hook for her... Would kill her, it would, what with Martin and Jason’s, uh, no thinking’ Even at home he never though about what he knows, about Jason’s double role or about his own. STATE would never know about his ancestry in the Criminal Clan, his allegiance to Matil, or of his services to Jason. ‘She will never even notice, until we strike and k’