feet into his leather slippers, but what else can be expected in the absence of further friction or mental stimulation of some kind? Mr. Blank feels more comfortable in the pajama bottoms and slippers than he did in the white trousers and tennis shoes, but at the same time he can’t help feeling guilty about these sartorial changes, for the fact is that he is no longer dressed all in white, which means that he has broken his promise to Anna – as per the demand of Peter Stillman, Junior – and this pains him deeply, even more deeply than the physical pain that is still reverberating through his body. As he shuffles over to the desk to resume his reading of the typescript, he resolves to make a clean breast of it the next time he sees her, hoping she will find it in her heart to forgive him.
Several moments later, he is once again sitting in the chair, his tailbone throbbing as he wriggles his backside around until he settles into a more or less acceptable position. Then he begins to read:
I first heard about the trouble in the Alien Territories six months ago. It was a late afternoon in midsummer, and I was sitting alone in my office, working on the last pages of my semi-annual report. We were well into the season of white cotton suits by then, but the air that day had been especially hot, bearing down with such stifling heaviness that even the thinnest clothing felt excessive. At ten o’clock, I had instructed the men in my department to remove their coats and ties, but as that seemed to have little effect, I dismissed them at noon. Since the staff had done nothing all morning but fan their faces and wipe sweat from their foreheads, it seemed pointless to hold them hostage any longer.
I remember dining at the Bruder Hof, a small restaurant around the corner from the Foreign Ministry building. Afterward, I took a stroll down Santa Victoria Boulevard, going as far as the river to see if I couldn’t coax a breeze to blow against my face. I saw the children launching their toy boats into the water, the women walking by in groups of three and four with their yellow parasols and bashful smiles, the young men loafing on the grass. I have always loved the capital in summer. There is a stillness that envelops us at that time of year, a trance-like quality that seems to blur the difference between animate and inanimate things, and with the crowds along the avenues so much thinner and quieter, the frenzy of the other seasons becomes almost unimaginable. Perhaps it is because the Protector and his family are gone from the city then, and with the palace standing empty and blue shutters covering the familiar windows, the reality of the Confederation begins to feel less substantial. One is aware of the great distances, of the endless territories and people, of the chaos and clamor of lives being lived – but they are all at a remove, somehow, as if the Confederation had become something internal, a dream that each person carried within himself.
After I returned to the office, I worked steadily until four o’clock. I had just put down my pen to mull over the concluding paragraphs when I was interrupted by the arrival of the Minister’s secretary – a young man named Jensen or Johnson, I can’t recall which. He handed me a note and then looked off discreetly in the other direction while I read it, waiting for an answer to carry back to the Minister. The message was very brief. Would it be possible for you to stop by my house this evening? Excuse the last-minute invitation, but there is a matter of great importance I need to discuss with you. Joubert .
I wrote out a reply on department stationery, thanking the Minister for his invitation and telling him that he could expect me at eight. The red-headed secretary went off with the letter, and for the next few minutes I remained at my desk, puzzling over what had just happened. Joubert had been installed as Minister three months earlier, and in that time I had seen him only once
K. L. Armstrong, M. A. Marr