I didn’t say a word. What could I say? I simply shook hands and his door closed behind me for the last time.
As I walked across the pillared entrance hall my name was called. I turned and found Sister Maria Teresa moving towards me.
‘Oh, Mr Mallory,’ she said. ‘I was waiting for you. I just wanted the chance to say goodbye.”
She seemed quite her old self again. Crisp white linen, the cheeks rosy, the same look of calm eager joy about her as when we first met.
“That’s kind of you.”
She said, “In some ways I feel that we never really under-stood each other and for that, I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “It takes all sorts. I understand you’re staying on here?”
“That’s right. Others will be arriving from America to join me shortly.”
“To go back up-river?”
“Why don’t you leave them alone?” I said. “Why doesn’t everybody leave them alone? They don’t need us – any of us -and they obviously don’t need what we’ve got to offer.”
“I don’t think you quite understand,” she said.
I was wasting my time, I realised that suddenly and com-pletely. “Then I’m glad I don’t, Sister,” I told her.
I think in that final moment, I actually got through to her. There was something in the eyes that was different, something undefmable, but perhaps that was simply wishful thinking. She turned and walked out.
I watched her go down the steps to the line of horse-drawn cabs whose drivers dozed in the hot sun. Nothing had changed and yet everything was different.
I never saw her again.
Standing at the rail of the stern-wheeler in the evening light and half an hour out of Manaus, I remembered my letters. As I was reading the one from the Air Ministry, Mannie found me.
“I’ve been put on the active service list,” I said. “Should have reported two months ago. This thing’s been chasing me since Peru.”
“So?” He nodded gravely. “The news from Europe seems to get worse each day.”
“One thing’s certain,” I said. “They’re going to need pilots back home. All they can get.”
“I suppose so. What happens in Belem? Will you apply to your consul for passage home?”
I shook my head, took the small linen bag Avila had given me in the church at Santa Helena and handed it to him. He opened it and poured a dozen fair-sized uncut diamonds into his palm.
“Avila’s parting present. I know it’s illegal, but we should get two or three thousand pounds for them in Belem with no trouble. I’ll go halves with you and we’ll go home in style.”
He replaced them carefully. “Strange,” he said. “To live as he did and in the end, to die so bravely.”
I thought he might take it further, attempt to touch on what had remained unspoken between us, but he obviously thought better of it.
“I’ve got a letter to write. I’ll see you later.” He patted me on the arm awkwardly and slipped away.
I had not heard her approach and yet she was there behind me, like a presence sensed.
She said, “I’ve just been talking to the captain. He tells me there’s a boat due out of Belem for New York the day after we get in.”
“That’s good,” I said. “You’ll be able to fly to California from there. Still make that test of yours at M.G.M. on time.”
The horizon was purple and gold, touched with fire. She said, “I’ve just seen Mannie. He tells me you’ve had a letter drafting you into the R.A.F.”
“Are you pleased?”
I shrugged. “If there’s going to be a war, and it looks pretty certain, then it’s the place to be.”
“Can I write to you? Have you got an address?”
“If you like. I’ve been posted to a place called Biggin Hill. A fighter squadron. And my mother would always pass letters on.”
She stood there, waiting for me to make some sort of move and I didn’t. Finally she said hesitantly, “If you’d like to come down later, Neil. You know my cabin.”