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Theater of deception
Confessions of an Iranian spy novelist

By Salar Abdoh
February 5, 2001
The Iranian

I was hated not because my skin was particularly any darker than the British boys I went to boarding school with. If anything, in the years since, I've come to think maybe they hated me for the opposite reason, for the jarring proximity of my color to their own pale skins. There was an element of the subversion of the natural order of things in my not being anything other than white.

We were Wogs, after all. Golliwogs, Woggies, Paks, Pakis; you name the name and we had it. One name that has stuck in memory was this: Excuse for a Camel's Ass. Camel, I could of course understand because of my Middle Eastern origin. But "excuse"? It seemed as if the person who had come up with this rather overlong slur was intimating that I wasn't even fit to be a camel's rear end, that I was lower than that: a mere excuse of the quadruped's arse.

It was Phil Barton who had called me that name first. It happened in second-form when I first entered Wellington boarding school. Barton was a thickly built English boy who liked to rough everybody up and wasn't liked very much. Needless to say, I had to have a fight with him. Not over the slur necessarily, but because I was new and foreign and had to stake my own territory. I fought a lot of pale skinned English boys those first weeks at Wellington. But soon I ran out of steam. Soon I came to realize that name calling was a way of life in the British public schools - at least in Wellington this was the case.

Being a wog just complicated things more than usual. You could be too short or too tall, too fat or too thin, you could have big ears - like me - or a slightly crooked nose, you could wear glasses, walk funny, speak with a stutter, have too much hair or not enough, your arms might be too long, your hands too bony, diseases of the skin, imaginary diseases, imaginary everything . . . it was all there, grist for the mill, grist for the relentless onslaught of those you shared breakfast, lunch, and dinner with day in and day out - meals begun with the inevitable "For what I'm about to receive may the Lord make me truly thankful."

We hated ourselves. There was something wrong with all of us. Few were perfect, few could pass through the eye of the needle and into the kingdom of the truly flawless. We were sure of that. We all, or mostly, were lacking, and the authorities certainly treated us thus. The British boys mainly came from the middle and upper middle classes of English society. The wogs, on the other hand - we were the children of the Middle Eastern noveau riche. Oil money. Oil money was pouring fast into the Middle East in the late seventies and our fathers balanced their less savory habits by sending us, their offspring, to British boarding schools to learn . . . what? Civility?

There was resentment, of course, on the part of the pale skins towards us and our newfound wealth. How could you blame them? The average English boy was taught to scrounge and be thrifty, so much so that sometimes I wondered if the idea of keeping us perpetually hungry was not a part of the boarding school program. We were always hungry. Always means always.

The English public school has been knocked around in many a film and essay and story. My intention is not to beat a dead horse till it apologizes for having kicked me. No. In retrospect, I could even say that I came away from Wellington with attachments that I have seldom found since. Twenty years later, their names, like the bully Phil Barton's designation for me, still stick in memory: Peter Laverack, Paul Standewick, Paul Heaton, Stanley Marriot, Kim Somaroo, Dave Brown, Robert Simpson . . . most, if not all, of them English boys whom I grew to care for precisely because we all suffered under the impartial blows of the same tyranny. Well, perhaps not quite impartial. For if being a good golliwog assured one a modicum of tranquillity, being a wild golliwog meant punishments ad absurdum, to a point that you actually came to suspect that the world, or at least Wellington, could not possibly function without you, just you, being continuously punished.

My brother was a good wog. He was better than good, in fact; he was an extraordinary wog. His skin color was far darker than mine. He was in the sixth-form when I was only in the third. The sixth-formers, as anyone who has gone through the British system knows, were the unequivocal elite, especially those in the upper sixth. They had the authority to punish the lower forms, and they usually did.

But my brother was extraordinary for other reasons. He could quote Shakespeare better than most of his teachers and he had already had a book of poems published. The English respected that; they respected it so much in fact that they gave him the top literary prize for the school at the end of his last year there - an unheard of thing for a wog to win this. But that was how the British were. Even then, as a fourteen-year-old wild wog, I was beginning to suspect that perhaps there was something unique about the English: they respected quality. It may be grudging respect, but it was there nevertheless, a carryover from their tradition of gentlemanly sense of fair play, I suppose.

But back then I had no notions of the so-called British sense of fair play. All I knew was that I was constantly being picked as the battered model for what others should not be. The punishments could sometimes get imaginative, especially if they came from sixth-formers rather than the teachers. Those I didn't mind. I didn't mind running in the dead of winter to the bathrooms by the cricket field to pull my pants down and sit on the toilet until a ring of red formed under my skin. I didn't mind standing on my head to do pushups until the lights started to fade from my eyes. I didn't even mind the occasional - in my case often - heckling by the sixth-formers who hated me for all the things I was and they had not been, and vice versa.

Yet I was forever being told that I should consider myself lucky, that in the old days, meaning when they, the sixth-formers, were mere third-formers like me, the punishments were far more extravagant. I didn't know what that meant. All I knew was that after a while I had developed this dread of being punished, and yet the punishments came with ever more frequency. Mostly they took the form of having to write what they called "sides". If as a punishment you were given three sides to write, it meant that you had to hunker down and copy through three pages of the dictionary, word for word, parentheses by parentheses, comma by comma, and show it to the upperclassman or teacher who had meted out the punishment to you.

Ask a child to pick his own punishment: a jog to the cricket fields for you-know-what or three sides of the dictionary. There's no contest there at all. I dreaded that dictionary, though in time I came to be quite proficient at copying it, to a point that soon I was able to breeze through at least the first half page of the letter A with only a cursory glance at the dictionary. The disciplinarians caught on then and started getting more specific: three sides starting from the letter Z, five sides from H, eleven sides starting from the tenth page of G. And so on.

It wasn't a system of checks and balances, it was the fabrication of fear into architecture; it wasn't evil, just petty. The downright arbitrariness of tyranny inside the strait-jacket of its own making - as with the day I lightly tapped the gym teacher in the middle of the lunch room to get his attention about something, and saw him turn red and yell and scream and dehumanize me in front of a several hundred student body for having had the temerity to simply touch him.

As with the day I was dog sick with the flu and had to visit the nurse during the day of the doctor's visit: asked if my chest hurt as well, I had to think about it and answer yes, even though I was not quite sure, but only because the question had been posed in the form of a lead in order to trap me. The doctor then looked at me with a look of utter loathing and promptly dismissed me without administering any medicine at all. His words: my condition did not warrant chest pain, so obviously I was either not sick or was plain lying.

It was a severe and sweeping hatred of all against all, I think. A kind of revulsion and antipathy that wormed its way into the simplest of human contacts. So, looking at it from one perspective, I am forced to admit that perhaps I was not alone in my misery. And the most concrete proof of this lies in one word: bread. Waxy, white, toilet paper quality bread that they fed us in abundance. It was the only thing they would feed us in abundance, for it came cheap and it served to quench our enduring hunger to some degree. It was against the rules, but we all would steal the index card-like bread in heaps in order to have toast to munch on after dinnertime. Toast was the great equalizer at Wellington. It was the one trespass the sixth-formers would not punish you for. Hunger did not make a distinction between the upper forms and the lower, between wogs and non-wogs, between me and the bully Phil Barton. Hunger was democratic, but Wellington was not.

The school was situated in some remote corner of Somerset in the southeastern part of England. Cider country. The nearest "big" town was Taunton, several miles away. The town of Wellington itself was, to me, like a lost desert island in the middle of the sea. There was a supermarket there, a small children's sports center, dozens of narrow lanes surrounded by green where we all would go to smoke cigarettes . . . It was a sleepy little hollow I couldn't care less for. I couldn't care whether or not the town and the school had been built and named after the Duke of Wellington. Nor did I ever find out. Wellington wasn't my game, period.

From the first day when I quickly gave up trying to decipher the lip-synching mumblings of the very English geography teacher, to the slightly less incomprehensible Latin classes, and the rugby and the cricket and the cross country runs and the ever present pork and beans meals and the continuous writing-from-the-dictionary punishments I had to hand off, I knew this wasn't my place at all. I did not like marmalade and I was exasperated by the absence of rice. The rigidity of the rules and the system of punishments had already begun to scandalize my barely thirteen-year-old mind.

The only thing I had in my arsenal for combat was to hit rock bottom, to be the wildest wog there ever was. It was a battle of wills between me and the collective mindset of the school. I did not do it consciously. I was not a hero. It was a lonely battle, and from the other side it might have given the authorities satisfying pause, for if it was me who was the true representative of my race, then my older brother who could quote Shakespeare better than they had to be an anomaly; and they, the Wellingtonians, could rest easy now: the school's top literary prize would undoubtedly revert back to a good old pale skin after my brother was graduated from there.

So the battle began, and continued for those two years I was at Wellington. And through that two-year engagement there was one name that stood out above all in my psyche, Salt - Mr. Salt, a nemesis, if there ever was one. He was not at all that big, but he cast a large shadow around the school. You could see that even the upper sixth-formers were afraid of him. Salt had refined the punishment system into an art form. It was his Colt revolver, his side issue, the weapon he would draw with effortless regularity to steal a whole afternoon of your time writing punishments for him.

But it wasn't just the punishments that gave Salt his reputation for being strict. It was his approach, the way he seemed to appear out of nowhere, his round white face slightly tinged with red when he was angry, his cold unblinking blue eyes boring into your heart as you quickly came to accept your station as sacrificial offering, and the way he stretched the moment so that deadly silence reigned for a good half minute before he called you into his office.

We'd all seen plenty of World War II films by then. Mr. Salt, to us, was the age-old SS Colonel who would march with dooming self-assurance through the halls and come to a halt at the threshold of the prisoners' dormitory to select fresh victims. This image was confirmed, also, by the fact that of the two subjects Salt taught, one happened to be German. He taught it efficiently and brutally; to this date I can still remember my "Willie geht nach Deutchland," "Willie is going to Germany" with alarming clarity - the first and only line of German I recall from those years, thanks to Mr. Salt's drilling.

He may have even encouraged the Gestapo comparison, I think. It's hard to believe he was not aware of it. Even during the second-form year -- when we were still junior members of the school and hadn't really had any occasion to come into contact with him -- our fear of the man was complete. My own first encounter with Salt occurred in second-form. It happened so: an unnaturally bright winter day for England. It may be the second or third school hour. I have my friend's notebook in my hand as we are crossing the street. I decide to throw him the notebook, instead of walking over to hand it to him. It is a simple childish gesture. Call it having fun, or a bit of simple horseplay. Call it boys being boys. Call it throwing a notebook to a friend who is standing eight feet away from you on the sidewalk. Soon as the notebook left my hand to reach David's, I felt a sharp pull on my left ear and within seconds I was being dragged back to the opposite side of that street.

I turned to look who was doing this to me. Salt. He had come from nowhere and swooped down upon me for throwing the notebook. I could see the unholy contours of hard punishment coming. And it came. I don't know how many sides of the dictionary I had to copy that day. The assignment lasted for the better part of an entire day and my hands were numbed by the time I came back to our dorm to go to sleep. When my dorm mates asked what had happened I wouldn't talk about it. It wasn't the punishment that galled me, but the sheer injustice of it.

That day in second-form set the pattern of my relationship with Mr. Salt for the next year and a half to come. As third-formers we were due the following year to change dorms and enter one of the senior houses. I was destined for the "Darks" house because my brother was already there. But there was another being residing at Darks whom I was not at all anxious to run into on a daily basis. Salt.

Salt was the assistant housemaster at Darks. Not only did he live there, but his quarters happened to be situated directly behind the third-formers' dormitory on the second floor. This meant trouble, big trouble, and we all knew it. Especially for me. From the first night in that early Autumn of 1978 at Darks it became a sort of running joke among my dorm mates about when and how Salt, Mr. Salt, would pounce on me. Everybody knew they had to watch their back, but it was a given that I, the troublemaking wog, had to watch my back doubly.

I did watch my back. For a while anyway. The first thing Salt did was to send a spy to get a bearing on me. His spy was a softish upper sixth-former whom I'm inclined to think was named Collins. Collins caught up with me one night and with a plaster smile on his face asked what I thought of Mr. Salt. I thought it odd that Collins should be asking my opinion about Salt. By then, the first or second week of the new school year, I had already had a couple of nerve-wracking brushes with Salt. It should have been crystal-clear to anyone what I thought of him. But more strange to me was the fact that Collins, an upper sixth-former, should be remotely interested in my opinion about anything.

Quick thinking was called for here. I knew I could not lie outright and say something like what a great man I thought Salt really was. That would not do. Nor could I express my inner feelings. I took the philosophic approach. I smiled back at Collins and said something to the effect that I knew Mr. Salt was going to punish me again and again throughout my time here; it was his job to do that, but, in fact, I rather liked the man. Collins may not have been a very good spy, but he did do his duty. He must have carried the news back to Salt verbatim, because the following days I noticed a marked change in Salt's attitude towards me. He even smiled a couple of times in my direction, and right away I attributed this change squarely to the power of my inchoate counter-espionage tactics.

The new order did not last very long, though. And I had not expected it to. Wellington was a well of conformity. It had been so for a hundred years, and there was no reason for it to yield an inch. The yielding had to come from my end and I couldn't, wouldn't, do it. So the punishments came and came again; they multiplied, they took strange shapes and sizes and after a while they turned me into their guinea pig. A wild wog out of control. A lab rat on the lose that had to be crushed before it spread disease. I don't know why they didn't save themselves the headache and just get rid of me. Maybe they thought if they put up with me long enough, my father would write the school a check for a million pounds as a sign of his gratitude and that would be that. Little did they know that less than a year later there would be a revolution in my woggy, oil-spewing country and my dad would barely be able to afford the price of a ticket to get himself out of there.

As the punishments increased so did my inclination to put Wellington out of my mind altogether. The solution hit me one winter day and I could not understand why I hadn't thought of it earlier: I could simply disappear whenever I felt the need. I could catch the trains to London, mess around a bit, and then come back to school when I pleased. I could do this on a weekend or, better yet, I could do it in the middle of the school week. It wasn't as easy a proposition as I had imagined at first, and in the beginning I faltered a bit. Escape needed planning. That was the most important thing I discovered on my first attempt when I was picked up by the Taunton police. They found me cowering in the bathroom of a bus depot where a habitué had just tried to feel my legs from the adjoining cubicle.

But the old credo says: if you don't succeed the first time, try and try again. I worked out the train schedules. The times when I would be missed the least. The varieties of ways I could get from Wellington to Taunton where I could catch the westbound trains. How to catch the trains unseen. And if I was seen, how to catch a train going in another direction and then change again at Bristol or Liverpool or Exeter or wherever the day took me.

Mr. Salt was not pleased. No one was pleased. But the first time around they were even slightly kind when the police returned me to the boarding school. The second time they were incensed. After that it just became a match of how much I could push and what records I could break in the punishment game. I was mutilating myself against the high barbed wire fence of the ghetto without realizing that was what I was doing. England was a foreign place to me. Or was it just Wellington, with it's crushing codes of conduct and its pulverizing of all traces of a young person's dignity? I hated Mr. Salt and he hated me. No more spies were sent to get a read on me. It truly was a test of wills and in certain quarters I was actually winning.

The idea, for instance, that one could simply take off and disappear was a whole new thing to the school body. It hadn't been thought of before. No student had done it, not in recent times, anyway. Conformity was spoken for completely. The rules precluded the idea of escape from the students' consciousness, just as they precluded the thought that one could take one's clothes off and run around the school Chapel shouting "God save the Queen."

But not anymore. After my second escape from Wellington, others started following suit. Kids were escaping singly and in pairs, and one time even, I believe, a whole dormitory of fourth-formers took off and returned triumphantly. This fashion, too, would pass. The constant factor was the punishments, though. My punishments. Mr. Salt, perhaps sensing that I was toying with the very principles that the school was founded on, came down on me harder than ever. By now we were like a couple of animals thrown into a ring, except if he was an elephant I was a mere shrimp. In another three or so years who knows what I might have done to him. But back then it was all I could do to preserve myself - that and the expectation in myself to cut wind in the face of discipline.

One winter night Mr. Salt called in the third-form dorm into his office. It was the one night out of the year where he would be nice to us wretched beings. The program went thus: he would hear our gripes about whatever was on our minds and he would either justify the school's position on the issue or try to do something about it. In the meantime, a frozen pizza, compliments of Mr. Salt himself, would be heated up and we would all share, if only for one brief moment, in the sham of having our voices heard by authority.

Knowing that it was a sham before I even set foot in that office, with the smell of the pizza already wafting through the air making all our hungry bellies start to growl, I also knew that the one way I could voice my rebellion here was to say absolutely nothing. For in reality we were not there to voice anything; we were there to eat a slice of thin pizza each and trust in the lie that the exchange of reason would make us less contemptible beings. The onus was on me to say my piece. It was expected of me. This was supposed to be my moment. But I said nothing.

I sat in a corner with a ironic smile on my face watching my dormitory mates eat pizza and chatter a bit with the dreaded Salt himself. But soon the growl in my belly became a veritable symphony. I could still smell that pizza -- a luxury for us at that age in that part of England -- and I could see the slices fast dwindling. I broke down. I broke down and I attacked that last slice and ate it, and as I was doing so I knew that I had shown weakness, that I had broken ranks with myself and I deserved everything I had coming to me. Now I was forced to enter the conversation along with the others. I had to say something. Voice a complaint. Whatever. I hated myself. I hated my levity. I had tried to make a stand and I had failed. No one else had failed in that room but me, for no one else had had any other intentions than to eat and feel included in the grand scheme of Wellington's doings.

Not only did I hate myself at that moment, but I'm sure that Mr. Salt hated me then more than ever. He was a man who could smell weakness like an animal on the hunt, a bird of prey. Had I stood my ground and said nothing and eaten nothing, he might have had a bit of that same grudging respect for me that the British had for my brother. But it was too late for that.

My embarrassment with myself manifested itself in the form of stupidity. When asked if I had anything to contribute to the conversation, all I could do was to grin idiotically and ask Mr. Salt if he thought our matron, the lady who was in charge of all our clothing at the Dark's House, wasn't a little moronic. The silence that ensued my question forced me to hold onto that stupid grin like a buoy. I had drifted into troubled waters once more; I had not made a "reasonable" complaint but made fun of authority. Plus, I had shown weakness by eating Mr. Salt's pizza. The man's revulsion towards me was complete. And little could I blame him.

The next weekend the third-formers at Darks were rounded up to be taken to town to see the movie Grease starring a very young John Travolta. I had already seen the film during one of my periodic escapes to London and did not care to see it again. Besides me, the only other kid who did not go with the group was another Iranian by the name of Ali. Ali, who was something of a friend, did not go because he was a thief. He was a model student, as respected as a wog in third-form could ever be, and he was seldom punished. You could say that Ali and I inhabited the opposite poles of the world of wog-dom at Wellington.

Being a thief, Ali thought the occasion ripe to go through the other kids' belongings while they were away watching Grease. His objects of desire were usually fountain pens. At some point I had lost count of the number of fountain pens he had stolen from both the boarding students and the day students who would leave their bags outside of the cafeteria everyday before lunch time. Ali had tried to include me in his scheme, but I wanted no part of it.

It was a quiet night, then. Cold. Very cold. Snow had frozen on the fields outside. As harsh a winter night in Somerset as I remember. I had nothing much to do. No punishments to complete. No dictionary pages to copy. At some point during the early evening I ran into our house matron, the same woman I had accused of being a little senile the previous week, and we had a squabble about something. To this day I have no idea where these matrons came from. They were nearly always older ladies who had never been married and who always managed to look malnourished even if they were fat and happy.

This particular matron had an added habit: she talked to herself. She talked to herself incessantly, a mile a minute, like the whir and whiz of a bee that has forgotten how to sting but would rather keep trying for the sake of continuity. I actually liked this woman. She was the one matron I had met who was so far out of the loop of things that you could not possibly, by any stretch of the imagination, think she had a conscious notion to do you irreparable harm. I cannot recall, then, what our dispute was all about. Basically, I could not pick a fight with Mr. Salt, so I had to pick it with this poor creature who talked to herself and who easily beat out all other matron in the malnourished-look department.

At that point I decided to make another round of the nearly emptied house. Then as I was passing the door of the matron's workroom one more time I saw she had left her set of keys on the outside lock while she herself was inside. The temptation was too great, especially since I was already a little ticked off at her. I grasped the set of keys in my hands, my palms sweating and my heart pounding; I turned the lock, imprisoning the befuddled old matron lady in her workroom while I took the keys out and walked away from the scene of my late mischief.

The first and only person I related the episode to was of course Ali. There was no one else there to tell it to at the time. I was completely exhilarated. I imagined the poor woman playing with the door handle, pushing and pulling, cursing under her breath, not knowing what had happened to cause that door to lock. I was too excited to sit still, so I took off in the direction of the fields to have a cigarette and ditch the set of keys. The temperature was below freezing. I recall not lasting out there very long. I smoked my cigarette and immediately came back to wash my mouth out and have a hot cup of tea.

Mr. Salt was waiting for me. As soon as I saw him standing there at the edge of the TV room where I would have to pass in order to get to our floor I knew something was not right. My first fear was that he would be able to sniff the recently smoked cigarette and force me to empty my pockets right there and then in front of him. But no, there were other things in the wind. Without saying a word, Salt motioned me to follow him. I was stunned with fear, for Salt appeared even more murderous than usual with that icy silence. Then when I saw Ali standing at attention outside of Salt's office, I knew that I'd really been done in this time. There was no maneuvering room. I could not communicate to Ali to shutup, since Salt was right there. One word out of me, even in our own language, would have given Salt green light to string me up.

Ali was left standing outside while Salt called me into his room. The subject was obvious: the keys. What had happened to the matron's keys and who had locked her in? I protested innocence, but Salt would have none of it. I was the one and only obvious culprit. I had already insinuated the previous week that I thought the matron was a bit daft. I had had a row with her only earlier tonight, which Salt already knew about. There were very few students in the house when the offense had been committed. And even if there had been, I was still the likeliest candidate to do something as foolish as locking the matron in and taking her keys.

Salt sat upright in his study chair eyeing me. There was no emotion in his face that I could see. That face said a lot to me, however. I was familiar with its ways. There was no pizza tonight. Only Salt and I and the guilt on my end waiting to be reeled in. Salt's room felt excessively hot. Having just come from the outside where my fingers had been freezing, I now sensed a rush of blood into my fingertips and felt them start to throb horribly. At some point I lost the thread of what Salt was asking or saying to me. I was staring right at the man but all my thoughts were with those fingertips, causing me to squirm inside without being able to show it.

Then once more I was remembering the keys which I had ditched somewhere in the bushes. So did Salt. Where were the keys? What had I been doing at such and such an hour at such and such a place? Why hadn't I gone to see the film with everybody else? What was I doing outside at the time when Salt had been waiting for me? I answered. I danced. I circled. He jabbed and I ducked. He cornered me and I wriggled from underneath. It was a tango we were both familiar with, except the stakes were higher than usual tonight. For I had done something unspeakable. I had actually crossed that line which protected the adults from us inferior beings and thrown a proverbial egg at their windowsills. I had to be punished. But first my guilt had to be proved, indisputably. Salt knew he had to get a confession out of me. But I wasn't about to give him that satisfaction. A confession would be a death sentence for me. I would keep dancing.

After a minute Salt gave me an impatient look and told me to go stand outside and call Ali in. It was my chance now to relay a word to Ali. But then I saw Salt following right behind me as I opened that door. Ali was in front of me and Salt behind. No chance but to hope Ali would play it smartly.

My dread while I waited prevented me from trying to think up a course of action. There was nothing to do but wait and see what the interrogation would bring. It took less than three minutes. When Salt opened the door to his office again I saw that Ali was not there. He had been let out through the rear door to go back to the dormitory. Salt sat back down and immediately played his card: "Ali Malek just confessed everything. Now I want to hear it from your own mouth. Where are the keys?"

To sum all the things that went through my mind just then would be to suggest I took a long time answering. But my answer actually came on the double. I was thinking: 1- Salt was bluffing, and Ali hadn't confessed at all. 2- Ali had confessed to gain brownie points from the Saltman. 3- The Saltman had played the same trick on Ali that he was now playing on me and Ali had been stupid enough to fall for it (Later I found out this was in fact what had happened. Salt had told Ali I had already confessed and he only needed a confirmation of it from him).

There were other things on my mind also: crime and punishment, for one thing. I was thinking of the days and weeks I would have to spend being punished if I gave so much as an inch. Besides, if Ali had already been duped, why did Salt need me to incriminate myself? The answer to that was simple: it wasn't just a question of catching me; it was a question of winning. It was the game Salt wanted to win. He wanted to beat me with his bluff and see me cringe. He wanted to put it over on me. He wanted me reduced to the worm that he already thought of me.

"Sir," I said, "if Ali says I took the keys then he's lying."

An out and out denial. I hadn't skipped a beat. I'd known what would happen if I did: Salt would have consumed me for my weakness, for the inferiority of a mind that had fallen for the oldest trick in the art of interrogation.

To my surprise Salt now began to smile. He didn't actually smile, but a sort of softness came over his hard face. He was eyeing me through a lens I had never before seen on him. That softness seemed to be saying, "Abdoh, you are the devil itself. But now I have a level of esteem for you. That other fool fell for my bluff, but you didn't. And if I really wanted to I could bring Malek in here and pit the two of you against each other and continue the questioning until I wore you down. But I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to do it because now you have my grudging respect. You may be a wog, but you are a wog with a brain, and I, being an Englishman, have to give credit where it's due, at least."

I thought my ears were hearing things wrong. Now Salt was telling me he would have no further questions on the subject if by some miracle the sets of keys happened to find themselves back inside the matron's door lock. Was this the same Salt talking that I had known for the past two years? It was. He knew that I knew that he knew that I had taken the keys. I knew that he knew. And so on. The spy game had danced its dance in that little room on that winter night of 1978-79 in a corner of rural England. Salt and I were adversaries; we would continue to be adversaries. Yet in some strange fashion we had also become brothers in that most disorienting of arts, the art of concealment. We had dived far below the surface, where most Wellingtonians had no idea existed or dared not tread, and swam right smack into each other in the underwater hall of mirror of an imagined Atlantis.

A short silence now followed between us. And those few moments in Salt's room were moments of pure crystal clarity for me: I had touched base with the world beneath the world and become cognizant of its existence. Now I knew this world might even serve to help me get by in that other world, the world of Wellington and thousands of Wellingtons like it - and this might not necessarily be a good thing. But there it was, and in the meantime my estimation of Salt, too, had grown immeasurably. Because deep down I understood that Salt and I were really members of the same tribe, a tribe the existence of which I had not even known until that very moment. And it hardly mattered if we happened to be adversaries. I recalled the words I had said to Collins, Salt's agent, all those months ago at the beginning of the school year, and only now understood the accuracy of my own dissembling: Salt has his job to do and I have mine. What was my job? To watch for Salt's punishments as signposts of lurking ambush in this theater of rebellion I had invented for myself.

Salt was not just my enemy, he was my mentor in this rebellion. The next day the matron's keys miraculously reappeared in their original spot. No more questions were asked about this. And no one else interrogated me. I didn't have to return those keys. At least not in such an obvious fashion, placing them right back into the lock so that it would be evident someone had taken those keys in the first place. But I wanted to do it. That was my wink and a nod to Salt to show I understood his understanding. That was my way of saying to him, "I know where we've been, you and me, through which door the two of us have passed, and this set of keys is simply a peephole into that other place, that other universe."


Salar Abdoh is the author of The Poet Game (2000, Picador), a spy novel involving terrorists. He teaches English at the City University of New York.

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