MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
PEOPLE IN GLASS HOUSES (Chapter One)I. Nothing in Excess'The aim of the Organization,' Mr Bekkus dictated, leaning back in his chair and casting up his eyes to the perforations of the sound-proof ceiling; 'The aim of the Organization,' he repeated with emphasis, as though he were directing a firing-squad -- and then, 'the long-range aim,' narrowing his eyes to this more distant target, 'is to fully utilize the resources of the staff and hopefully by the end of the fiscal year to have laid stress--'
Mr Bekkus frequently misused the word 'hopefully'. He also made a point of saying 'locate' instead of 'find', 'utilize' instead of 'use', and never lost an opportunity to indicate or communicate; and would slip in a 'basically' when he felt unsure of his ground.
'-- to have laid greater stress upon the capacities of certain members of the staff at present in junior positions. Since this bears heavily' -- Mr Bekkus now leant forward and rested his elbows firmly on his frayed blue blotter -- 'on the nature of our future work force, attention is drawn to the Director-General's directive set out in (give the document symbol here, Germaine), asking that Personnel Officers communicate the names of staff members having -- what was the wording there?' He reached for a mimeographed paper in his tray.
'Imagination,' Germaine supplied.
'-- imagination and abilities which could be utilized in more responsible posts.' Mr Bekkus stopped again. 'Where's Swoboda?'
'He went to deposit your pay-cheque, Mr Bekkus.'
'Well, when he comes in tell him I need the figures he's been preparing. Better leave a space at the end, then, for numbers of vacant posts. New paragraph. Candidates should be recommended solely on the basis of outstanding personal attributes, bearing in mind the basic qualifications of an international civil servant as set forth in Part II (that's roman, Germaine) of the Staff Regulations with due regard to education, years of service, age, and administrative ability. Read that back. ... All right. We'll set up the breakdown when Swoboda comes across with the figures. Just bang that out, then -- copies all round.' Mr Bekkus was always saying 'Bang this out' or 'Dash that off' in a way that somehow minimized Germaine's role and suggested that her job was not only unexacting but even jolly.
'Yes, Mr Bekkus.' Germaine had closed her book and was searching for her extra pencil among the papers on the desk.
'You see how it is, Germaine,' said Mr Bekkus, again leaning back in the tiny office as if he owned it all. 'The Director-General is loosening things up, wants people who have ideas, individuality, not the run-of-the-mill civil servants we've been getting round here.' His gesture was apparently directed towards the outer office, which Germaine shared with Swoboda, the clerk. 'Not just people who fit in with the requirements. And he's prepared to relax the requirements in order to get them.'
Germaine wrinkled her forehead. 'But you did say.' She turned up her notes again.
'What did I say?' asked Mr Bekkus, turning faintly hostile.
'Here. Where it says about due regard.'
'Ah -- the necessary qualifications. My dear girl, we have to talk in terms of suitable candidates. You can't take on just anybody. You wouldn't suggest that we promote people merely to be kind to them?' Since Germaine looked for a moment as if she might conceivably make such a suggestion, he added belligerently, 'Would you?'
'Oh -- no.' And, having found her pencil under the Daily List of Official Documents, she added, 'Here it is.'
'Why, these are the elementary qualifications in any organization today.' Holding up one hand, he enumerated them on his outstretched fingers. 'University education' -- Mr Bekkus would have been the last to minimize the importance of this in view of the years it had taken him to wrest his own degree in business administration from a reluctant provincial college. 'Administrative ability. Output. Responsibility. And leadership potential.' Having come to the end of his fingers, he appeared to dismiss the possibility of additional requirements; he had in some way contrived to make them all sound like the same thing.
'I'll leave a blank then,' said Germaine. 'At the end of the page.' She tucked her pencil in the flap of her book and left the room.
Stupid little thing, Mr Bekkus thought indulgently -- even, perhaps, companionably. Germaine at any rate need not disturb herself about the new directive: she was lucky to be in the Organization at all. This was the way Mr Bekkus felt about any number of his colleagues.
'Yes, come in, Swoboda. Good. Sit down, will you, and we'll go over these. I've drafted a memo for the Section Chief to sign.'
Swoboda pulled up a chair to the corner of the desk. Swoboda was in his late thirties, slender, Slavic, with a nervous manner but quiet eyes and still hands. Having emerged from Europe after the war as a displaced person, Swoboda had no national standing and had been hired as a clerk by the Organization in its earliest days. As a local recruit he had a lower salary, fewer privileges, and a less interesting occupation than the internationally recruited members of the staff, but in 1947 he had counted himself fortunate to get a job at all. This sense of good fortune had sustained him for some time; it is possible, however, that after more than twenty years at approximately the same rank it was at last beginning to desert him.
Bekkus wanted to be fair. Swoboda made him uneasy, but Bekkus would have admitted that Swoboda could turn in good work under proper supervision. Mr Bekkus flattered himself (as he correctly expressed it) that he had supervised Swoboda pretty thoroughly during the time he had had him in his office -- had organized him, in fact, for the maximum potential. Still, Swoboda made him uneasy, for there was something withdrawn about him, something that could not be brought out under proper supervision or even at the Christmas party. Bekkus would have said that Swoboda did not fully communicate.
But Bekkus wanted to be fair. Swoboda was a conscientious staff member, and the calculations he now laid on the corner of the desk represented a great deal of disagreeable work -- work which Bekkus freely, though silently, admitted he would not have cared to do himself.
Bekkus lifted the first page. 'All right. And did you break down the turn-over?'
'Here, sir. The number of posts vacated each year in various grades.'
Bekkus glanced down a list headed Resignations and Retirement. 'Good God, is that all? Is this the total? How can we fit new people in if hardly anyone leaves?'
'You're looking at the sub-total. If you'll allow me.' Swoboda turned the page to another heading: Deaths and Dismissals.
'That's more like it,' said Bekkus with relief. 'This means that we can move about fifty people up each year from the Subsidiary into the Specialized grades.' (The staff was divided into these two categories, and there had been little advancement from the Subsidiary to the Specialized. Those few who had in fact managed to get promoted from the lower category were viewed by their new colleagues much as an emancipated slave must have been regarded in ancient Rome by those born free.)
'The trouble, of course,' went on Bekkus, 'is to find capable people on the existing staff. You know what the plan is, Swoboda. The D.-G. wants us to comb the Organization, to comb it thoroughly' -- Bekkus made a gesture of grooming some immense shaggy animal -- 'for staff members of real ability in both categories who've been passed over, keep an eye open for initiative, that kind of thing. These people -- these staff members, that is -- have resources which have not been fully utilized, and which can be utilized, Swoboda. ...' Mr Bekkus paused, for Swoboda was looking at him with more interest and feeling than usual, then pulled himself together and added, 'within the existing framework.' The feeling and interest passed from Swoboda's expression and left no trace.
Bekkus handed back the tables. 'If you'll get Germaine to stick this in at the foot of the memo, I think we're all set. And then bring me the file on Wyatt, will you? That's A. Wyatt, in the Translation Section. I have to take it to the Board. It's a case for compulsory retirement.'
'Got one,' Algie Wyatt underlined a phrase on the page before him.
'What?' asked Lidia Korabetski, looking up from the passage she was translating.
'Contradiction in terms.' Algie was collecting contradictions in terms: to a nucleus of 'military intelligence' and 'competent authorities' he had added such discoveries as the soul of efficiency, easy virtue, enlightened self-interest, Bankers Trust, and Christian Scientist.
'What?' Lidia asked again.
'Cultural mission,' replied Algie, turning the page and looking encouraged, as if he studied the document solely for such rewards as this.
Lidia and Algie were translators at the Organization. That is to say that they sat all day -- with an hour off for lunch and breaks for tea -- at their desks translating Organization documents out of one of the five official languages and into another. Lidia, who had been brought up in France of Russian and English parentage, translated into French from English and Russian; Algie, who was British and had lived much abroad, translated into English from French and Spanish. They made written translations only, the greater drama of the oral interpretation of debates being reserved for the Organization's simultaneous interpreters. The documents Algie and Lidia translated contained the records of meetings, the recommendations of councils, the reports of committees, the minutes of working groups, and were not all noted for economy or felicity of phrase. However, both Algie and Lidia were resourceful with words and sought to convey the purport of these documents in a faithful and unpretentious manner.
In the several years during which Lidia and Algie had shared an office at the Organization, it had often been remarked that they made an odd pair. This is frequently said of two people whose personalities are ideally complementary, as was the case in this instance. It was also commonly agreed that there was no romance between them -- as is often said where there is nothing but romance, pure romance, romance only, with no distracting facts of any kind.
When Lidia first came to share his office, Algie was about fifty-five years old. He was an immense man, of great height and bulky body, whose scarlet face and slightly bloodshot blue eyes proclaimed him something of a drinker. His health having suffered in the exercise of a great capacity for life, he shifted himself about with a heaving, shambling walk and was breathless after the least exertion. When he entered the office in the morning he would stand for some seconds over his desk, apparently exhausted by the efforts, physical and mental, involved in his having arrived there. He would then let himself down, first bulging outwards like a gutted building, then folding in the middle before collapsing into his grey Organization chair. For a while he would sit there, speechless and crimson-faced and heaving like a gong-tormented sea.
Although education and upbringing had prepared him for everything except the necessity of earning his own living, this was by no means Algie's first job. During the thirties he had worked for the Foreign Office in the Balkans, but resigned in order to go to Spain as a correspondent during the Civil War. He spent most of the Second World War as an intelligence officer with the British Army in North Africa and during this time produced a creditable study on Roman remains in Libya and a highly useful Arabic phrase-book for British soldiers. After the war, his private income having dwindled to almost nothing, he entered the Organization in a dramatic escape from a possible career in the world of commerce.
It was not known how Algie came to apply to the Organization; still less how the Organization came to admit him. (It was said that his dossier had become confused with that of an eligible Malayan named Wai-lat, whose application had been unaccountably rejected.) Once in, Algie did the work required of him, overcoming a natural indolence that would have crushed other men. But he and the Organization were incompatible, and should never have been mated.
The Organization had bred, out of a staff recruited from its hundred member nations, a peculiarly anonymous variety of public official, of recognizable aspect and manner. It is a type to be seen to this very day, anxiously carrying a full briefcase or fumbling for a laissez-passer in airports throughout the world. In tribute to the levelling powers of Organization life, it may be said that a staff member wearing a sari or kente was as recognizable as one in a dark suit, and that the face below the fez was as nervously, as conscientiously Organizational as that beneath the Borsalino. The nature -- what Mr Bekkus would have called the 'aim' -- of the Organization was such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, that there was no room for personalities, and that its hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. No new country, no new language or way of life, no marriage or involvement in war could have so effectively altered and unified the way in which these people presented themselves to the world. It was this process of subordination that was to be seen going on beneath the homburg or turban. And it was Algie's inability to submit to this process that had delivered his dossier into the hands of Mr Bekkus at the Terminations Board.
To Algie it seemed that he was constantly being asked to take leave of those senses of humour, proportion, and the ridiculous that he had carefully nurtured and refined throughout his life. He could not get used to giving, with a straight face, a continual account of himself; nor could he regard as valid a system of judging a person's usefulness by the extent of his passion for detail. He found himself in a world that required laborious explanation of matters whose very meaning, in his view, depended on their being tacitly understood. His idiosyncrasy, his unpunctuality, his persistence in crediting his superiors with precisely that intuition they lacked and envied, were almost as unwelcome at the Organization as they would have been in the commercial world. He was, in short, an exception: that very thing for which organizations make so little allowance.
Sometimes as Algie sat there in the mornings getting back his breath, Lidia would tell him where she had been the previous evening, what she had been reading or listening to, some detail that would fill the gap since they had left the office the night before. When she did not provide these clues, it usually meant that she had been seeing a lover. She would never have mentioned such a thing to Algie, because of the romance between them.
Like many of the women who worked at the Organization, Lidia was unmarried. Unlike them, she remained so by her own choice. Years before, she had been married to an official of the Organization who had died on his way to a regional meeting of the Global Health Commission in La Paz. (His car overturned on a mountain road, and it was thought that he, like many of the delegates to the Commission, had been affected by the altitude.) Lidia had loved this husband. For some time after his death she kept to herself, and, even when this ceased to be the case, showed no inclination to remarry. She was admired by her male colleagues and much in demand as a companion, being fair-haired, slender, and not given to discussing her work out of office hours.
'Mustn't forget,' Algie now said. 'Got an appointment at two-thirty. Chap called Bekkus in Personnel.'
Lidia gave an absent-minded groan. 'Bekkus. Dreary man.'
'A bit boring.' This was the strongest criticism Algie had ever been known to make of any of his colleagues.
'Boring isn't the word,' said Lidia, although it was. She became more attentive. 'Isn't he on the Appointments and Terminations Board?'
'Committee for improving our calibre.'
'Improvement too, the idol of the age,
Is fed with many a victim.'
There was nothing Algie enjoyed more than the apt quotation, whether delivered by himself or another. It gave him a momentary sensation that the world had come right; that some instant of perfect harmony had been achieved by two minds meeting, possibly across centuries. His own sources, fed by fifty years of wide and joyous reading, were in this respect inexhaustible. He had an unfashionable affection, too, for those poets whom he regarded as his contemporaries -- Belloc, Chesterton, de la Mare -- and would occasionally look up from his work (the reader will have gathered that looking up from his work was one of Algie's most pronounced mannerisms) to announce that 'Don John of Austria is gone by Alcalar,' or to ask 'Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?'
From all of which it will readily be seen why Algie's file was in the hands of Mr Bekkus and why Algie was not considered suitable for continued employment at the Organization. It may also be seen, however, that Algie's resources were of the kind never yet fully utilized by organization or mankind.
'Yes, here it is.' Lidia had unearthed a printed list from a yellowing stack of papers on the heating equipment beside her. 'R. Bekkus. Appointments and Terminations Board.'
'Well, I've been appointed,' Algie remarked, pushing his work away completely and preparing to rise to his feet, 'so perhaps it's the other thing.' He pressed his hands on the desk, heaved himself up and presently shambled off into the corridor.
Lidia went on with her work, and for fifteen minutes there was silence in the office she shared with Algie. It was a room typical of offices throughout the Organization -- grey-walled, like that of Mr Bekkus, and floored with rubber tiles of a darker grey. Panels of fluorescent lighting were let into the white soundproofing that covered the ceiling. A wide low window-sill was formed by the metal covers of the radiators, and along this ledge at various intervals were stacked small sheaves of papers -- the lower ones yellowing, the upper ones filmed with the grit that found its way through the aluminium window frames. (In each office the heating could be adjusted to some extent, so that in all the rooms of the Organization its international character was manifest in temperatures that ranged from nostalgic approximations of the North Sea to torrid renderings of conditions along the Zambesi.) Algie's and Lidia's desks were pushed together, facing one another, and each had a grey chair upholstered in dark blue. Blue blotters were centres on the desks and surrounded by trays of papers, black desk-sets, stapling machines, and dishes of paper clips -- and, in Lidia's case, a philodendron in a cracked ceramic cache-pot. On each desk there was also a telephone and a small engagement pad on a metal fixture. There was a typewriter in one corner of the room, and a bookcase -- into whose upper shelves dictionaries and bound documents had been crammed -- stood with its back to the wall. On the lowest shelf of this bookcase were a pair of galoshes, a watering-can, an unwashed glass vase, a Wedgwood cup and saucer, three cafeteria spoons, and a single black glove.
On one wall, a calendar -- the gift of a Japanese travel concern -- was turned to the appropriate month (this was not always the case in Organization offices), displaying a colourful plate which bore, to Algie's delight, the legend 'Gorgeous bunch of blooming peonies'.
From the windows, which were vast and clean, one looked on to a wide river and to its industrial banks beyond. The presence of the river was refreshing, although it carried almost continuously the water traffic -- coal and railway barges, tugs, tankers, and cargo vessels -- of the great city in which the Organization was laid. Oceans and rivers with their simple and traditional associations of purification and continuity are excellent things to have outside office windows, and in this case helped in some measure to express that much misrepresented, highly commendable and largely unachieved thing -- the aim of the Organization.
'Some bad news, I'm afraid.' Tong put his head round Lidia Korabetski's door -- this was literally true, since Tong's small neat head and long neck were all of him that showed. Tong was beaming. 'Some bad news, yes.' Not naturally malicious, he had developed rapidly since entering bureaucracy.
Lidia, lifting her head, could not help asking, 'What is it?'
'Wyatt at lunch?' Tong nodded towards Algie's empty desk.
'He's been back from lunch for ages,' said Lidia defensively. Lunch at the Organization was officially one hour, and Algie was often overdue.
'They're not renewing his contract.'
'His Permanent Contract, of course.' Permanence, at the Organization, was viewed in blocks of five years, and a Permanent Contract was subject to quinquennial review. 'The Terminations Board decided against renewing. They're going to let him retire early instead.'
'But he doesn't want to retire early. How unfair.'
'Another sort of place would have fired him.'
'And another sort of place would have promoted him.'
'Look -- I like him too -- everyone likes him -- but there's a limit.' Limits were often proudly cited at the Organization.
Lidia took up her pencil again. 'He's a good translator.'
'Well -- that's an opinion I never went along with. We worked together once, you know -- on the Preliminary Survey of Intolerance. I had to correct him repeatedly.'
Lidia raised her eyebrows, but merely asked, 'Do you get full pension if you're retired before time?'
'Wouldn't be a bit surprised if he ends up better off than we do.'
'Well, at least they're not firing him. They're being decent. That's one thing you can say for the Organization. They're decent about this sort of thing. They wouldn't fire him.'
'He'd get more money if they did.' (Certain indemnities were involved in the rupture of Permanence.) Lidia put her head back down to her work. 'I've got to get on with this.'
Tong, passing Algie coming from the elevators, raised his hand in cordial greeting. 'All O.K. with you, I hope, Wyatt?' (Tong was a man who could reverse himself in this way.)
'Splendid,' grunted Algie. (Algie was a man who could grunt such a word.) He went slowly along the corridor to the office he shared with Lidia.
An odd pair, Tong thought. He still had not told the news about Algie to his friend Pike in Inland Waterways on the floor below. Rather than wait for the elevator, he opened a dangerously heavy door marked 'Sortie de Secours' and ran down the emergency stairs.
'Tong was here,' Lidia said.
'Saw him in the corridor.' Algie let himself into his chair. 'Tong,' he mused. 'The very word is like a bell.'
Lidia had no way of telling whether Algie had been informed that he was to be retired early. She would have liked to make him some show of solidarity but could only offer him a peppermint, which he refused.
'You free for lunch tomorrow?' she asked -- Algie's telegraphic manner of communication having rubbed off on her to some extent.
'Tomorrow -- what's tomorrow?' Algie turned several pages of his desk calendar. 'Sorry, no. Lunching with Jaspersen. Could change it, perhaps?'
'No, no,' said Lidia hastily, for Jaspersen was the one friend of Algie's who held an influential position in the Organization. 'Some other day.'
'Better make it soon,' remarked Algie -- from which Lidia realized that he knew his fate.
They went on with their work in silence for some moments. Then Algie let out a snort of laughter. 'Listen to this. Chap here got it in a nutshell: "In the year under review, assistance was rendered to sixty differing countries."'
Olaf Jaspersen was a year younger than Algie Wyatt and had been at Cambridge with him. People found this hard to believe, for Jaspersen was lean and fleet, his eye was clear, his features youthful. He wore dark, well-cut clothes during the week, and tweeds on Saturday mornings -- which he invariably spent at the office. He had joined the Organization shortly after Algie. From the first he had been given important responsibilities, which he handled with efficiency and charm. He now held one of the most senior posts in the Organization and had established a reputation for common sense, justice, and rather more style than was usual. Things seemed to go right with Jaspersen. His career was prospering, his wife was beautiful, his children intelligent; he had even come into a small inheritance lately.
But something had happened to Olaf Jaspersen in recent years. He had fallen in love.
He had fallen in love with the Organization. Like someone who for a long time enjoys the friendship of a beautiful woman but boasts that he would not dream of having an affair with her, he had been conquered all the more completely in the end. During his early years on the staff, he had maintained his outside interests, his social pleasures -- the books he read for nothing but enjoyment, the conversations he had that bore no apparent relation to his Organization duties. This state of affairs had flagged, diminished, then altogether ceased to be the case. He was still an able man, but his concept of ability had been coloured by Organization requirements; he found it harder to believe in the existence of abilities that did not directly contribute to the aim of the Organization. He was still, on occasion, gay -- but his wit now sprang exclusively from Organization sources and could only be enjoyed by those in the Organizational know (of whom, fortunately for this purpose, his acquaintance had come to be principally composed). He had joined the staff because he believed sincerely, even passionately, in the importance of the Organization; that importance had latterly become indistinguishable from his own. He held, no doubt correctly, that the dissolution of the Organization would be calamitous for the human race; but one felt that the survival of the human race, should the Organization fail, would be regarded by him as a piece of downright impertinence.
Algie liked Olaf Jaspersen. He admired his many good qualities, including those gifts of energy and application which had not been bestowed upon himself. Algie's youthful memories of a lighter, livelier Jaspersen contributed to the place of the present Jaspersen in his affections. Jaspersen, in turn, had recollections of an Algie full of fun and promise, and regretted that the fun had increased in inverse ratio to the promise.
If his loyalty to Algie was in part due to Algie's never having rivalled him professionally, this was a common human weakness and need not be held against him. Jaspersen was genuinely grieved when he learned that Algie was to be retired before time, and genuinely wished to assist him. He therefore came to their lunch appointment prepared to give good advice.
The staff of the Organization took their meals in either of two places: a large and noisy cafeteria where they stood in line, or a large and noisy dining-room where they could -- at additional cost -- be served. The food, which was plain and good, was substantially the same in both places, although it may be said that in the dining-room the plates were slightly lighter and the forks slightly heavier. It was to the dining-room that Olaf Jaspersen took Algie for lunch this day.
Jaspersen, a man of too much taste to adopt the line of 'Well now, what's this I hear?', found it difficult to raise with Algie the delicate question of enforced resignation. In Jaspersen's view, expulsion from the Organization was a very serious matter -- more serious, one might even have said, than it was to Algie himself. When Algie and he were settled with their Scotches and had ordered their respective portions of codfish cakes and chicken à la king, he bent towards Algie. 'A bad development,' he said. 'Can't tell you how sorry.'
'Ah well,' said Algie, 'not to worry.' He gave Jaspersen an appreciative nod, and went on with his drink, which he had already gone on with quite a bit.
'Rolls?' asked the waitress, wheeling up a portable oven.
'Er-one of those,' Jaspersen said.
Putting it on his plate, she identified it with the words, 'Corn muffin.'
'Mistake,' said Algie. 'Nothing but crumbs.'
'Look here, Algie, I know these fellows -- on the Board, I mean. Not bad chaps -- not villainous, nothing like that -- but slow. Not overloaded with ideas. Only understand what's put in front of 'em. Got to be played their way or they can't grasp, you know.'
'Ah well,' said Algie again, briskly setting down his glass as if to herald a change of subject.
'Let me get you another one of those. My point is -- in order to handle these chaps, you've got to get inside their minds. Talk their language.' He fished a pamphlet out of his pocket. 'I brought this for you. It's the Procedure of Appeal.' He began to hand it across the table, but at that moment the waitress came up with their lunch.
'Here,' said Algie, making room. He took the pamphlet from Jaspersen and laid it on the table beside his plate. His second drink arrived, and Jaspersen ordered half a bottle of white wine.
'The Board', Jaspersen went on, spearing a cube of chicken, 'is not the ultimate authority. That Bekkus is just a glorified clerk.'
'Point is,' Algie observed, 'he has been glorified.'
'I've been thinking about your case,' said Jaspersen, 'and I don't see how you could lose an appeal. I honestly don't. But get moving on it immediately -- you don't have a moment to waste.'
'What year is this?' inquired Algie, turning the bottle round. 'Not at all bad.' When he had demolished the first codfish cake, he said, 'It's good of you, Olaf. But I'm not going to appeal.'
Jaspersen looked less surprised than might have been expected. 'Think it over,' was all he said.
'No,' Algie said. 'Really. Better this way.'
After a pause, Jaspersen went on kindly. 'You have, of course, exactly the sort of qualities the Organization can't cope with. With the Organization it has to be -- moderation in all things. I sometimes think we should put up in the main lobby that inscription the Greeks used in their temple: "Nothing in Excess".' Jaspersen was pleased to have hit on this reconciliation of Algie's virtues with those of the Organization, for Algie was generally a pushover for the Greeks.
Algie finished another codfish cake and drank his wine, but when he replied Jaspersen was startled by the energy in his voice.
'Nothing in excess,' Algie repeated. 'But one has to understand the meaning of excess. Why should it be taken, as it seems to be these days, to refer simply to self-indulgence, or violence-or enjoyment? Wasn't it intended, don't you think, to refer to all excesses -- excess of pettiness, of timorousness, of officiousness, of sententiousness, of censoriousness? Excess of stinginess or rancour? Excess of bores?' Algie went back to his vegetables for a while, and Jaspersen was again surprised when he continued. 'At the other end of that temple, there was a second inscription -- "Know Thyself". Didn't mean -- d'you think -- that we should be mesmerized by every pettifogging detail of our composition. Meant we should understand ourselves in order to be free.' Algie laid down his knife and fork and pushed away his plate. He handed back to Jaspersen the Procedure of Appeal. 'No thanks old boy, really. Fact is, I'm not suited to it here, and from that point of view these chaps are right. You tell me to get inside their minds -- but if I did that I might never find my way out again.'
'But Algie, what about your pension? Think of the risk, at your age.'
'I do get something, you know -- a reduced pension, or a lump sum. And then -- for someone like me, the real risk is to stay.'
After that, they talked of other things. But Jaspersen felt disturbed and sad, and his sadness was greater than he could reasonably account for.
Lidia was coming down in the elevator when Millicent Bass got in. Lidia, on her way to the cafeteria, was pressed between a saintly Indian from Political Settlements (a department high on Algie's list of contradictions in terms) and Swoboda from Personnel, who greeted her in Russian. Behind her were two young Africans, speaking French and dressed in Italian suits, a genial roly-poly Iranian, and a Paraguayan called Martinez-MacIntosh with a ginger moustache. In front of her was a young girl from the Filing Room who stood in silence with her head bowed. Her pale hair, inefficiently swept upwards, was secured by a plastic clip, so that Lidia had a close view of her slender, somewhat pathetic neck and the topmost ridges of her spinal column. The zipper of her orange wool-jersey dress had been incompletely closed, and the single hook above it was undone. Lidia was toying with the idea of drawing this to the girl's attention when the elevator doors opened at the sixteenth floor to admit Millicent Bass.
Miss Bass was a large lady with a certain presence. One felt that she was about to say 'This way please' -- an impression that was fortified, when the elevator doors disclosed her, by the fact that she was standing, upright and expectant, with a document in her hand. She got in, raking the car as she did so with a hostile stare. Her mouth was firmly set, as if to keep back warmer words than those she habitually spoke, and her protuberant eyes were slightly belligerent, as if repressing tears.
Lidia knew her well, having once worked on a report for which Miss Bass was responsible. This was a Report on the Horizontal Coordination of Community Programmes, for Miss Bass was a member of the Department of Social and Anthropological Questions.
'Haven't seen you for a while, Lidia.' Miss Bass squeezed in next to the girl in orange and, as far as she was able to do so, looked Lidia up and down. 'You're far too thin,' she announced. (She had the unreflective drawl of her profession, a voice loud yet exhausted.)
When the elevator disgorged them at the cafeteria, Miss Bass completed her scrutiny of Lidia. 'You spend too much money on clothes.'
Lidia was pondering the interesting fact that these two remarks, when reversed ('You are far too fat' and 'You should spend more money on clothes'), are socially impermissible, when Millicent took her off guard by suggesting they lunch together. Rather than betray herself by that fractional hesitation which bespeaks dismay, she accepted heartily. Oh God how ghastly, she said to herself, dropping a selection of forks, knives, and spoons loudly on to a tray.
As they pushed their trays along, Millicent Bass inquired, 'How much does a dress like that cost?' When Lidia was silent, she went on handsomely, 'You don't have to tell me if you don't want to.'
I know that, thought Lidia. It's being asked that annoys me.
'This all right for you?' Millicent asked her as they seated themselves near the windows. Lidia nodded, looking around and seeing Bekkus deep in conversation with a colleague at the adjacent table. They transferred their dishes from the tray and placed their handbags on a spare chair. Millicent also had her document, much annotated about the margins, which she pushed to the vacant side of the table. 'I was going to run through that,' she said regretfully. She unfolded a paper napkin in her lap and passed Lidia the salt. 'Those codfish cakes look good.'
Lidia began her lunch, and they exchanged casual remarks in high voices across the cafeteria din. (While talking with Miss Bass of things one did not particularly care about, one had the sensation of constantly attempting to allay her suspicions of one's true ideas and quite different interests.) Miss Bass then spoke in some detail of a new report she was working on, a survey of drainage in Polynesia. Conditions were distressing. There was much to be done. She gave examples.
'Poor things,' Lidia murmured, stoically finishing her meal.
'It's no use saying "poor things", Lidia.' Miss Bass often took it on herself to dictate the responses of others. 'Sentiment doesn't help. What's needed is know-how.'
Lidia was silent, believing that even drains cannot supplant human feeling.
'The trouble with you, Lidia, is that you respond emotionally, not pragmatically. It's a device to retain the sense of patronage. Unconscious, of course. You don't think of people like these as your brothers.' Miss Bass was one of those who find it easy and even gratifying to direct fraternal feelings towards large numbers of people living at great distances. Her own brother -- who was shiftless and sometimes tried to borrow money from her -- she had not seen for over a year. 'You don't relate to them as individuals.' In Miss Bass's mouth the very word 'individuals' denoted legions.
Lidia, casting about for a diversion, was softened to see that Mr Bekkus had brought out photographs of what appeared to be a small child and was showing them to his companion.
'Who is that man?' Millicent asked. 'I've seen him around for years.'
'Bekkus, from Personnel.' Lidia lowered her voice. 'He's on the Appointments and Terminations Board.'
'My baby verbalizes,' Bekkus was saying to his colleague. 'Just learning to verbalize.'
'Speaking of which,' Millicent went on, 'I hear you're losing your friend.'
Lidia hesitated, then dug her spoon into her crème caramel. 'You mean Algie.'
'Well, there's a limit after all,' Miss Bass said, sensing resistance.
'I'll miss him.'
Miss Bass was not to be repulsed. 'He is impossible.'
Lidia laughed. 'When people say that about Algie, it always reminds me of Bakunin.'
'One of the new translators?' asked Miss Bass, running through the names of the Russian Section in her mind.
'No, no. I mean the Russian revolutionary.'
'He's a friend of Algie's?' Millicent inquired -- sharply, for politics were forbidden to the Organization staff, and a direct affiliation with them was one of the few infallible means of obtaining summary dismissal.
'He died a century ago.'
'What's he got to do with Algie?' Miss Bass was still suspicious.
'Oh -- he was a big untidy man, and he once said -- when someone told him he was impossible -- "I shall continue to be impossible so long as those who are now possible remain possible."'
Millicent was not amused. 'The Organization cannot afford Algie Wyatt.'
'He's a luxury,' Lidia admitted.
'Pleasure-loving,' said Miss Bass, as if this were something unnatural.
'Yes,' Lidia agreed.
'And always trying to be clever.'
'That's right,' said Lidia.
'I'd prefer a more serious attitude,' said Miss Bass. And it was true; she actually would.
Lidia held her spoon poised for a moment and said seriously, 'Millicent, please don't go on about Algie. I don't like it.'
Millicent's only idea of dignity was standing on it, and she did this for some minutes. Soon, however, she forgot what had been said and inquired about the terms of Algie's retirement.
'I really don't know anything about it.' Lidia dropped her crumpled napkin on her plate.
'He has a choice, I believe -- a reduced pension or a lump sum. That's the arrangement for enforced resignation.'
'I don't know,' said Lidia. 'Shall we go?'
When they left the cafeteria, they walked along together to the elevators.
'Now I hope you won't think me hard,' Miss Bass was beginning, when the elevator arrived -- fortunately, perhaps, for her aspiration.
Algie was sitting at his desk when Lidia entered the office. They smiled at each other, and when she was seated at her desk, Lidia asked, 'Did you have a nice time with Jaspersen?'
'Splendid,' grunted Algie, going on with his work. He added, for once without looking up, 'Wanted me to appeal my case. Shan't do it, though.'
'Perhaps you ought to think about it?'
Algie shook his head, still writing. A little later he murmured aloud, 'Never more, Miranda. Never more.'
'Algie,' Lidia said, putting down her pencil. 'What do you think you'll do, then? Take a reduced pension?'
Now Algie did look up, but kept his pencil in his hand. 'No. No. Take my lump sum and look for a small house somewhere along the Mediterranean. In the south of Spain, perhaps. Málaga, or Torremolinos. Good climate, some things still fairly cheap.'
'Do you know anyone there?'
'Someone sure to turn up.' He went on with his work for a moment. 'Only thing is -- it's very dangerous to die in Spain.'
'How do you mean?'
'Law insists you be buried within twenty-four hours. Doctors not allowed to open your veins. If you should happen still to be alive, you wake up and find yourself in your coffin. When my time comes, I'm going down to Gibraltar and die in safety. Very dangerous to die in Spain.'
'But what if one's really dead?'
Algie looked solemn. 'That's a risk you have to take.'
Algie died the following year at Torremolinos. He died very suddenly, of a stroke, and had no time to reach safety in Gibraltar. An obituary paragraph of some length appeared in the London Times, and a brief notice in the Organization's staff gazette, which misspelt his name. For so large a man, he left few material traces in the world. The slim remnants of his lump sum went to a sixteen-year-old nephew. His book on Roman remains in Libya is being reissued by an English publisher with private means.
Just about the time of Algie's death, Lidia became engaged to a handsome Scotsman in the Political Settlements Department. Although they have since been married, Lidia has kept her job and now shares her office with a Luxembourgeois who seldom looks up from his work and confesses to having no memory for verse. No one mourned the death of Algie more than Olaf Jaspersen, who remarked that he felt as if he had lost a part of himself. Jaspersen has recently attended important conferences abroad, and has taken to coming in to the office on Sundays. Millicent Bass is being sent to Africa, and regards this as a challenge; her arrival there is being accepted in the same spirit.
Swoboda has been put forward for a promotion, but has been warned that there may be some delay. Mr Bekkus has received his promotion, though over some objections. He is still combing the Organization, with little success, for unutilized sources of ability and imagination. He continues to dictate letters in his characteristic style, and his baby is now verbalizing fluently along much the same lines.
Algie's last letter to Lidia was written only a few days before he died, but reached her some weeks later, as he had neglected to mark it 'Correo Aéreo'. In this letter he reported the discovery of several new contradictions in terms and mentioned, among other things, that Piero della Francesca died on the same day that Columbus discovered America, and that there is in Mexico a rat poison called The Last Supper. Such information is hard to come by these days; now that Algie was gone, Lidia could not readily think of another source.
PEOPLE IN GLASS HOUSES Copyright © 1964, 1966, 1967 by Shirley Hazzard.