It was a perfectly ordinary Friday afternoon in tropical Panama until Andrew Osnard barged into Harry Pendel’s shop asking to be measured for a suit. When he barged in, Pendel was one person. By the time he barged out again Pendel was another. Total time elapsed: seventy-seven minutes according to the mahogany-cased clock by Samuel Collier of Eccles, one of the many historic features of the house of Pendel & Braithwaite Limitada, Tailors to Royalty, formerly of Savile Row, London, and presently of the Vía España, Panama City.
Or just off it. As near to the España as made no difference. And P & B for short.
The day began prompt at six, when Pendel woke with a jolt to the din of band saws and building work and traffic in the valley and the sturdy male voice of Armed Forces Radio. “I wasn’t there, it was two other blokes, she hit me first, and it was with her consent, Your Honour,” he informed the morning, because he had a sense of impending punishment but couldn’t place it. Then he remembered his eight-thirty appointment with his bank manager and sprang out of bed at the same moment that his wife, Louisa, howled, “No, no, no,” and pulled the sheet over her head, because mornings were her worst time.
“Why not ‘Yes, yes, yes’ for a change?” he asked her in the mirror while he waited for the tap to run hot. “Let’s have a bit of optimism round the place, shall we, Lou?”
Louisa groaned but her corpse under the sheet didn’t stir, so Pendel amused himself with a game of cocky repartee with the news reader in order to lift his spirits.
The Commander in charge of U.S. Southern Command last night again insisted that the United States will honour its treaty obligations to Panama, both in the principle and in the deed, the news reader proclaimed with male majesty.
“It’s a con, darling,” Pendel retorted, lathering soap onto his face. “If it wasn’t a con you wouldn’t go on saying it, would you, General?”
The Panamanian President has today arrived in Hong Kong for the start of his two-week tour of Southeast Asian capitals, said the news reader.
“Here we go, here’s your boss!” Pendel called, and held out a soapy hand to command her attention.
He is accompanied by a team of the country’s economic and trade experts, including his forward planning advisor on the Panama Canal, Dr. Ernesto Delgado.
“Well done, Ernie,” said Pendel approvingly, with an eye to his recumbent wife.
On Monday the presidential party will continue to Tokyo for substantive talks aimed at increasing Japanese investment in Panama, said the news reader.
“And those geishas aren’t going to know what hit them,” said Pendel in a lower tone, as he shaved his left cheek. “Not with our Ernie on the prowl.”
Louisa woke up with a crash.
“Harry, I do not wish you to speak of Ernesto in those terms even in jest, please.”
“No, dear. Very sorry, dear. It shall not happen again. Ever,” he promised while he navigated the difficult bit just under the nostrils.
But Louisa was not appeased.
“Why can’t Panama invest in Panama?” she complained, sweeping aside the sheet and sitting bolt upright in the white linen nightdress she had inherited from her mother. “Why do we have to have Asians do it? We’re rich enough. We’ve got one hundred and seven banks in this town alone, don’t we? Why can’t we use our own drug money to build our own factories and schools and hospitals?”
The “we” was not literal. Louisa was a Zonian, raised in the Canal Zone in the days when by extortionate treaty it was American territory forever, even if the territory was only ten miles wide and fifty miles long and surrounded by despised Panamanians. Her late father was an army engineer who, having been seconded to the Canal, took early retirement to become a servant of the Canal company. Her late mother was a libertarian Bible teacher in one of the Zone’s segregated schools.
“You know what they say, dear,” Pendel replied, holding up an earlobe and shaving beneath it. He shaved as others might paint, loving his bottles and brushes. “Panama’s not a country, it’s a casino. And we know the boys who run it. You work for one of them, don’t you?”
He had done it again. When his conscience was bad he couldn’t help himself any more than Louisa could help rising.
“No, Harry, I do not. I work for Ernesto Delgado, and Ernesto is not one of them. Ernesto is a straight arrow, he has ideals, he cherishes Panama’s future as a free and sovereign state in the community of nations. Unlike them, he is not on the take, he is not carpetbagging his country’s inheritance. That makes him very special and very, very rare.”
Secretly ashamed of himself, Pendel turned on the shower and tested the water with his hand.
“Pressure’s down again,” he said brightly. “Serves us right for living on a hill.”
Louisa got out of bed and yanked her nightdress over her head. She was tall and long-waisted, with dark tough hair and the high breasts of a sportswoman. When she forgot herself she was beautiful. But when she remembered herself again, she stooped her shoulders and looked glum.
“Just one good man, Harry,” she persisted as she rammed her hair inside her shower cap. “That’s all it takes to make this country work. One good man of Ernesto’s calibre. Not another orator, not another egomaniac, just one good Christian ethical man is all it takes. One decent capable administrator who is not corrupt, who can fix the roads and the drains and the poverty and the crime and the drugs and preserve the Canal and not sell it to the highest bidder. Ernesto sincerely wishes to be that person. It does not behoove you or anybody else to speak ill of him.”
Dressing quickly, though with his customary care, Pendel hastened to the kitchen. The Pendels, like everyone else who was middle class in Panama, kept a string of servants, but an unspoken puritanism dictated that the master of the family make breakfast. Poached egg on toast for Mark, bagel and cream cheese for Hannah. And passages by heart from The Mikado, quite pleasantly sung because Pendel loved his music. Mark was dressed and doing his homework at the kitchen table. Hannah had to be coaxed from the bathroom, where she was worrying about a blemish on her nose.
Then a helter-skelter of recrimination and farewells as Louisa, dressed but late for work at the Panama Canal Commission Administration Building, leaps for her Peugeot and Pendel and the kids take to the Toyota and set off on the school rat run, left, right, left down the steep hillside to the main road, Hannah eating her bagel and Mark wrestling with homework in the bouncing four-track and Pendel saying, Sorry about the rush today, gang, I’ve got a bit of an early powwow with the money boys, and privately wishing he hadn’t been cheap about Delgado.
Then a spurt on the wrong carriageway, courtesy of the morning operativo that allows city-bound commuters to use both lanes. Then a life-and-death scramble through charging traffic into small roads again, past American-style houses very like their own to the glass-and-plastic village with its Charlie Pops and McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and the fun fair where Mark had his arm broken by an enemy bumper car last Fourth of July and when they got to the hospital it was full of kids with firework bums.
Then pandemonium while Pendel rummages for a spare quarter to give the black boy selling roses at the lights, then wild waving from all three of them for the old man who’s been standing at the same street corner for the last six months, offering the same rocking chair at two hundred and fifty dollars written on a placard round his neck. Side roads again, it’s Mark’s turn to be dropped first, join the stinking inferno of Manuel Espinosa Batista, pass the National University, sneak a wistful glance at leggy girls with white shirts, and books under their arms, acknowledge the wedding-cake glory of the Del Carmen Church--Good morning, God--take your life in your hands across the Vía España, duck into the Avenida Federico Boyd with a sigh of relief, duck again into Vía Israel onto San Francisco, go with the flow to Paitilla airport, good morning again to the ladies and gentlemen of the drugs trade who account largely for the rows of pretty private aeroplanes parked among the trash, crumbling buildings, stray dogs and chickens, but rein back now, a little caution, please, breathe out, the rash of anti-Jewish bombings in Latin America has not passed unnoticed: those hard-faced young men at the gate of the Albert Einstein mean business, so watch your manners. Mark hops out, early for once, Hannah yells, “Forgot this, goofy!” and chucks his satchel after him. Mark strides off, no demonstrations of affection allowed, not even a flap of the hand lest it be misinterpreted by his peers as wistful longing.
Then back into the fray, the frustrated shriek of police sirens, the grunt and grind of bulldozers and power drills, all the mindless hooting, farting and protesting of a third world tropical city that can’t wait to choke itself to death, back to the beggars and cripples and the sellers of hand towels, flowers, drinking mugs and cookies crowding you at every traffic light--Hannah, get your window down, and where’s that tin of half-balboas?--today it’s the turn of the legless white-haired senator paddling himself in his dog cart, and after him the beautiful black mother with her happy baby on her hip, fifty cents for the mother and a wave for the baby and here comes the weeping boy on crutches again, one leg bent under him like an overripe banana, does he weep all day or only in the rush hour? Hannah gives him a half-balboa as well.
Then clear water for a moment as we race on up the hill at full speed to the María Inmaculada with its powdery-faced nuns fussing around the yellow school buses in the forecourt--Señor Pendel, buenos días! and buenos días to you, Sister Piedad! And to you too, Sister Imelda!--and has Hannah remembered her collection money for whichever saint it is today? No, she’s goofy too, so here’s five bucks, darling, you’ve got plenty of time and have a great day. Hannah, who is plump, gives her father a pulpy kiss and wanders off in search of Sarah, who is this week’s soul mate, while a smiling very fat policeman with a gold wristwatch looks on like Father Christmas.
And nobody makes anything of it, Pendel thinks in near contentment as he watches her disappear into the crowd. Not the kids, not anyone. Not even me. One Jewish boy except he’s not, one Catholic girl except she’s not either, and for all of us it’s normal. And sorry I was rude about the peerless Ernesto Delgado, dear, but it’s not my day for being a good boy.
After which, in the sweetness of his own company, Pendel rejoins the highway and switches on his Mozart. And at once his awareness sharpens, as it tends to do as soon as he is alone. Out of habit he makes sure his doors are locked and keeps half an eye for traffic muggers, cops and other dangerous characters. But he isn’t worried. For a few months after the U.S. invasion, gunmen ruled Panama in peace. Today if anybody pulled a gun in a traffic jam he would be met with a fusillade from every car but Pendel’s.
A scorching sun leaps at him from behind yet another half-built high-rise, shadows blacken, the clatter of the city thickens. Rainbow washing appears amid the darkness of the rickety tenements of the narrow streets he must negotiate. The faces on the pavement are African, Indian, Chinese and every mixture in between. Panama boasts as many varieties of human being as birds, a thing that daily gladdens the hybrid Pendel’s heart. Some were descended from slaves, others might as well have been, for their forefathers had been shipped here in their tens of thousands to work and sometimes die for the Canal.
The road opens. Low tide and low lighting on the Pacific. The dark grey islands across the bay are like far-off Chinese mountains suspended in the dusky mist. Pendel has a great wish to go to them. Perhaps that’s Louisa’s fault, because sometimes her strident insecurity wears him out. Or perhaps it’s because he can already see straight ahead of him the raw red tip of the bank’s skyscraper jostling for who’s longest among its equally hideous fellows. A dozen ships float in ghostly line above the invisible horizon, burning up dead time while they wait to enter the Canal. In a leap of empathy Pendel endures the tedium of life on board. He is sweltering on the motionless deck, he is lying in a stinking cabin full of foreign bodies and oil fumes. No more dead time for me, thank you, he promises himself with a shudder. Never again. For the rest of his natural life, Harry Pendel will relish every hour of every day, and that’s official. Ask Uncle Benny, alive or dead.
Entering the stately Avenida Balboa, he has the sensation of becoming airborne. To his right the United States Embassy rolls by, larger than the Presidential Palace, larger even than his bank. But not, at this moment, larger than Louisa. I’m too grandiose, he explains to her as he descends into the bank’s forecourt. If I wasn’t so grandiose in my head I’d never be in the mess I’m in now, I’d never have seen myself as a landed baron and I’d never be owing a mint I haven’t got and I’d stop sniping at Ernie Delgado and anybody else you happen to regard as Mister Morally Impeccable. Reluctantly he switches off his Mozart, reaches into the back of the car, removes his jacket from its hanger--he has selected dark blue--slips it on and adjusts his Denman & Goddard tie in the driving mirror. A stern boy in uniform guards the great glass entrance. He nurses a pump-action shotgun and salutes everyone who wears a suit.
“Don Eduardo, Monseñor, how are we today, sir?” Pendel cries in English, flinging up an arm. The boy beams in delight.
“Good morning, Mr. Pendel,” he replies. It’s all the English he knows.
For a tailor, Harry Pendel is unexpectedly physical. Perhaps he is aware of this, because he walks with an air of power restrained. He is broad as well as tall, with grizzled hair cropped short. He has a heavy chest and the thick sloped shoulders of a boxer. Yet his walk is statesmanlike and disciplined. His hands, at first curled lightly at his sides, link themselves primly behind the sturdy back. It is a walk to inspect a guard of honour or face assassination with dignity. In his imagination Pendel has done both. One vent in the back of the jacket is all he allows. He calls it Braithwaite’s Law.