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The Adjacent

by Christopher Priest

Hardcover, 377 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $24.99 |


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Christopher Priest

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NPR Summary

Returning to a terrorism-stricken Britain of the near future, a recently widowed photographer discovers similarities between attacks in West London and the incident that killed his wife before being drawn into an obscure government organization with links to H.G. Wells and major historical wars.

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Excerpt: 'The Adjacent'

Tibor Tarent had been travelling so long, from so far, hustled by officials through borders and zones, treated with deference but nonetheless made to move quickly from one place to the next. And the mix of vehicles: a helicopter, a train with covered windows, a fast-moving boat of some kind, an aircraft, then a Mebsher personnel carrier. Finally, he was taken aboard another ship, a passenger ferry, where a cabin was made ready for him and he slept fitfully through most of the voyage. One of the officials, a woman, travelled with him, but she remained discreetly unapproachable. They were heading up the English Channel under a dark grey sky, the land distantly in view — when he went up to the boat deck the wind was stiff and laced with sleet and he did not stay there for long.

The ship came to a halt about an hour later. From a window in one of the saloons he saw that they were heading not for a port, as he had imagined, but sidling towards a long concrete jetty built out from the shore.

While he wondered what was happening the woman official approached him and told him to collect his luggage. He asked her where they were.

'This is Southampton Water. You're being taken ashore at the town of Hamble, to avoid delays at the main port. There will be a car waiting for you.'

She led him to an assembly area in the lower crew section of the ship. Two more officials came aboard and he was led by them down a temporary ramp and along the windswept open jetty towards land. The woman remained on the ship. No one asked to see his passport. He felt as if he was a prisoner, but the men spoke politely to him. He could only glimpse his surroundings: the river estuary was wide, but both shores had many buildings and industrial sites. The ship he had been on was already moving away from the jetty. He had boarded it during the night, and he was now surprised to see that it was smaller than he imagined.

They passed through Southampton in the car soon afterwards. Tarent began to sense where they were taking him, but after the last three days of intensive travel he had learned not to ask questions of the people assigned to him. They went through countryside and came eventually to a big town, which turned out to be Reading. He was lodged in a large hotel in the city centre. It was a place of stultifying luxury within a cordon of apparently endless levels of security. He stayed only one night, sleepless and disturbed, feeling like a prisoner or at least a temporary captive of some kind. Food and non-alcoholic drinks were brought to the room whenever he asked, but he consumed little of it. He found it hard to breathe in the air-conditioned room, harder still to put his mind at rest, and impossible to sleep. He tried to watch television, but there were no news channels on the hotel system. Nothing else interested him. He dozed on the bed, stiff with fatigue, suffering memories, grieving over the death of his wife Melanie, constantly aware of the sound of the television.

In the morning he tried breakfast but he still had little appetite. The officials returned while he was at the restaurant table and asked him to be ready to leave as soon as possible. The two young men were ones he had not seen before, both wearing pale grey suits. They knew no more about him or what was planned for him than any of the others. They called him Sir, treated him with deference, but Tarent could tell that they were merely carrying out a task to which they had been assigned.

Before they left the hotel one of them asked Tarent for identification, so he produced the diplomatic passport issued to him before he travelled to Turkey. One glance at its distinctive cover was enough to satisfy the enquiry.

He was driven to Bracknell and at last he was sure where he was being taken. Melanie's parents were expecting him at their house on the outskirts of the town. While the official car drove away, Tarent and his two in-laws embraced on the steps outside their house. Melanie's mother Annie started to cry as soon as he arrived, while Gordon, the father, stayed dry-eyed but at first said nothing. They led him into their house, familiar to him from previous trips, but now it felt cold and remote. Outside, a grey day brought heavy showers of rain.

After routine polite enquiries about his need for the bathroom, drinks, and so on, the three of them sat close together in the long sitting room, the collection of watercolour landscapes, the heavy furniture, all unchanged since his last visit. Melanie had been with him then. Tarent's bag was outside in the hall but he kept his camera equipment beside him, resting on the floor next to his feet.

Then Gordon said, 'Tibor, we have to ask you. Were you with Melanie when she died?'

'Yes. We were together the whole time.'

'Did you see what happened to her?'

'No. Not at that moment. I was still inside the main building at the clinic, but Melanie had walked outside on her own.'

'She was alone?'

'Temporarily. No one knows why she did that, but two of the security guards were on their way to find her.'

'So she was unprotected?'

Annie tried to suppress a sob, turned away, bowed her head.

'Melanie knew the dangers, and you know what she was like. She never took an unnecessary risk. They warned us all the time – no one could be a hundred per cent safe if we left the compound. She was wearing a Kevlar jacket when she left.'

'Why did Melanie go out on her own? Have you any idea?'

'No, I haven't. I was devastated by what happened to her.'

Those were the first questions and they ended like that. Annie and Gordon said they would make some tea or coffee, and they left him alone for a few moments. Tarent sat in the thickly padded armchair, feeling the weight of his camera holdall leaning against his leg. Of course he had intended to visit Melanie's parents, but not as soon as this, the first full day back in England, plus living with the guilt about Melanie's death, the loss of her, the sudden end to their plans.

After the non-stop travel and temporary overnight stays, the familiar house felt to Tarent stable and calming. He consciously relaxed his muscles, realizing that he had been tensed up for days. Everything about the house looked unchanged from before, but it was their house, not his. He had only ever been here as a visitor.

He came awake suddenly, the smell of cooking in the air. There was a mug of tea on the table in front of him, but it had been cold a long time. He glanced at his watch: at least two hours had passed while he slept. Sounds came from the kitchen so he walked in to show them he was awake again.

After lunch he went for a long walk with Gordon, but the subject of Melanie's death was not discussed. Their house was on the Binfield side of the town, close to the old golf course. It was late summer but both men wore thick outer coats. When they left the house they had to bend their heads against the chill blustering wind, but within an hour the weather had changed and both men took off their jackets and suffered the glaring heat of the sun.

Thinking of the heat he had endured while he was at the clinic in Anatolia, Tarent said nothing. It was uncomfortable to be out in the sun, but it was better than the cold wind.

They walked as far as what Gordon described as the decoy site, one of dozens that had been built around London as a fire lure during the second world war, to try to keep the Luftwaffe bombers away from the city. Bracknell then had been a village three miles away, and the decoy was out in the wild. There was not much to see: the remains of a dugout shelter, bricked up and overgrown with weeds, and some half-visible piping firmly buried in the soil. Gordon said he took an amateur interest in these old decoy sites, and described how they had been used. He sometimes went to look for other sites. Most of the big industrial cities had installed decoys in 1940, but nearly all of the sites had disappeared since. This was one of the less well preserved ones, but some of those up north were in better condition.

Walking back towards the house, Gordon pointed out the hospital where he was a consultant surgeon, and where Melanie had also worked for a while. It was before she and Tarent met. Gordon told Tarent a long story about an operation he had performed several years earlier. Every procedure had gone wrong almost from the start, and although the surgical team did everything possible it was one of those cases where the patient had just died, no matter what they tried. The patient had been on the table for more than eight hours, a young and attractive woman, a dancer with a touring ballet company, apparently healthy, in for minor abdominal surgery, little risk of infection or other complications, no reason to die. That day Melanie had been training as a theatre nurse, on secondment from her ward nursing, and she had been beside him the whole day.

'I love that girl more than I can ever say,' Gordon said, and he and Tarent walked on down the hill in silence. By the time they were approaching the house the cold wind had returned. Gordon's story about the operation was, for the rest of that day, the only mention anyone made of Melanie.