Chief Superintendent Dager had just finished briefing Bowson and two of his other subordinates on the outcome of the Home Secretary’s steering group when someone appeared at his cubicle door; Bowson saw his face fall and sudden panicked realisation dawn. It was her; the HR Director with responsibility for senior officer development and such matters, his annual review with her was due shortly.
She smiled brusquely, oh boy, she seemed to conform to stereotype, severe blue suit, short brown hair, slim, no, skinny, angular, librarian spectacles, face composed in practised charm, thin gold chain around neck above white cotton blouse, sensible shoes. Feared by most officers, including a surprising number of the women, and trusted by even less, she was charged by the highest authorities with making the top echelons of the service more ‘representative’ and ‘diverse’ to reflect ‘today’s modern Britain.” She was perceived to have the power to make or break careers, her influence more to be feared than that of one’s direct line management. They at least had usually done a job similar to one’s own on their way up and had some understanding of the realities of life for the officers below them in the chain.
He dismissed Bowson and the others and went to the door to ask her in, closing it behind him, explaining Bowson’s injuries and return to work.
“He’s not having much luck is he, nor with this critically important investigation?” was all she said.
The voice was even, almost mechanical, outwardly solicitous and sympathetic, inwardly… Try not to think about it he thought, focus, no wrong moves, words critical here, say the right things.
“Well Sheena, this is a pleasant surprise. We were scheduled to meet in another hour, is everything alright? I was just briefing the team on progress and next steps in our investigation.”
“I’m here because there is concern,” a sudden drop in room temperature to near zero, “shared by both the Home Secretary and Commissioner. This is almost certainly turning into one of the most important investigations into terrorism of the last twenty years and we seem to be making no headway at all, have no idea who is responsible, or what they may be planning next. Politically,” her voice dropped even lower as if sharing a major confidence “the timing is most unfortunate, higher authorities are increasingly worried that the chief may not be treating it with the seriousness it deserves, and this may be being repeated more widely in the Command. I was wondering if you might agree that some changes in leadership style and tone might be required, perhaps new approaches from different perspectives…”
“I can assure you that we are all working hard, harder than ever, here and the chief is widely respected.”
“Of course, I wasn’t casting any aspersions at all, just thinking aloud, soliciting the views of one of the up-and-coming officers, one of those in the frame for future… advancement… Anyway, the reason I am here is that we have decided to postpone your appraisal until this unfortunate problem is satisfactorily resolved, see how the pieces lie afterwards, who’s polished their credentials, who alas…”
The knife might be obscured in reams of cotton wool verbiage, but it was at his throat now, he could sense it, everything just slipping away before his eyes.
She smiled at him. “If you were to ask my advice, my help, I would say it is difficult for someone such as yourself, with your background, to fit easily the template of the future senior officer the service requires for today’s challenges, given that the criteria have become so much broader. Unless of course one has people, support if you will, who know you for who you really are, who value your contribution and see it’s not hidebound by past models that are no longer relevant.”
The vocabulary might be tortured and obscure, but Dager was bright enough to see where this was going, in effect an ultimatum.
“I see from your record that you have not been making the time to attend some of our senior leadership programmes. That is disappointing, a disadvantage, you might be able to develop an appreciation of the qualities needed today if you were to attend, understand the things to demonstrate to be in tune with the future. It goes without saying that it puts you in contact with the right people, a developing alumnus you might say, people who can work together, co-operate for mutual good and that of the service, naturally. There are a couple of programmes I would recommend, run by our preferred leadership training partner, United Purpose. Why don’t you drop by my office tomorrow morning sometime and we can discuss it over coffee?”
The phone rings, he picks up.
“Ah. How did it go? Promising, but you’ll know better tomorrow you say? Desperate is he, that far? Bit like today’s meeting, shambles doesn’t describe it. No, not a clue, leads drying up like a stream in the Sahara, that’s what concerns me most. I think it’s something new, different, unknowable for the present and therefore dangerous. She’s in a head-hunting mood, so we need to be ready, make sure of our candidate and be ready to fill the hole she blasts. Don’t worry; you’re doing very well, I will be sure to inform the others.”
The phone is replaced on the receiver. Hmmm, ambition’s showing through, almost egocentricity. Useful though, very useful.
The mind wanders, speculates. It had all been going so well, still was, right people being moved into the right places, allies distracting everyone, pushing them into reactions that served others’ ends, intimidating, curtailing dissenting thought. Now someone, albeit unknowingly, was stirring it all up, complicating things, unsettling their ‘friends’, who were unpredictable at the best of times. Who were they, what did they want? How to trace them? Money usually leaves a trail, who can help? That’s one world in which we are weak.
It had all been going so well, so many years of almost uninterrupted success, encountering little and only spasmodic resistance; those resisting, having no vision, were just fighting uncoordinated individual battles, winning a few, losing most, foregoing the war almost by default; they were even arresting people in the street now for reading aloud from Winston’s Churchill’s historical writings. Thatcher had worried them, at least for a time, but in the long run had proved to be a massive benefit. She had focused all the potential opposition’s energies on money, the unending aspiration for more, no vision about what the silent war being fought was really about, had surrendered the institutions without a fight, not even realising it.
What was it Lenin had said about the capitalist selling you the rope to hang him with? So now we control almost everything that tells people how to think, what words to use, what they can’t say, the universities, the Quangos, the broadcast media, the teacher training colleges, HR departments and increasingly whole sections of the civil service itself. But now someone’s kicking back, targeting intelligently, upsetting our allies, clearly well-resourced, they must be a dissident group in the security services or tied to the military, no one else it could be. Well they’ve left it terribly late in the day, but we need to find them.
She went down to see if she could help Martha in anyway, help prepare supper, calm down an over-tired son who hadn’t slept all day and had, she feared, hardly noticed her absence. Quick supper and an early night for him was what was required. Martha had heard the day’s news from her husband, he had now gone up to the barn to check and feed the animals accompanied by the young man who had only recently starting to call him ‘Dad.’ She was surprised, but not shocked, by the disclosures and generosity of Thea, saying, but laughing as she did so, that the old woman undoubtedly had a soft spot for her husband and if Thea had been twenty-five years younger she might have had a fight on her hands to hold onto him. Well, Iltud clearly has a weakness for strong women reflected her guest later.
Her hostess examined the fabric clucking disapprovingly, unrolling enough to put it up against Sally, doubting her tailoring ability to do it justice, complaining about the extravagance, but smiling all-the-while and never mentioning the absence of the golden guinea from her purse.
“How did it go with the girl, and the visit of the priest and doctor?” she enquired.
Martha explained, “I said if anyone can get her to talk it would be him and I was right!”
After his departure, they had been able to coax the girl to allow the doctor to give her a superficial examination, trying to win her trust, and then to come downstairs for a little lunch. When she had seen Sam come in to eat, she had knelt by the table at his feet and tried to serve him, looking down at the ground. He had got upset and angry, and she had fled back to her room, Martha having to go up and persuade her, by means of smiles and gestures to come down again, sit at the table, Sam serving her. The girl had been shaking, on the point of weeping; Martha said it was one of the most distressing things she had ever seen.
They had taken the girl and Josey to see the little farm, the animals, the small village and church, the dirt lanes with their multitudes of spring flowers in bloom. She had taken it all in without a word. When they arrived back she had gone to her room with tears in her eyes.
“And there she still is,” Martha said, “until we persuade her to come down for supper and give her the gifts you found for her in the town, show her she’s welcome and secure; but that’s when I am really worried her nightmares will start.”
The atmosphere over dinner was fragile, just the five of them sat around the kitchen table by the warmth of the stove, a choice of plain foods, tea, water and some home-made apple juice from last year, no one knowing if the girl’s religion prohibited anything. Sally could see Sam was miserable, ashamed of himself for getting angry earlier, trying to mask it with the pretence of jollity, something he did transparently badly. The other three just chattered about the day, the things they had seen and heard, the wondrous Thea, Docco, the simple trivia of a busy day, hoping that the girl, while not understanding a word, might sense the camaraderie, the familial buzz. They pointed at each other when they spoke, repeating their names, then, pointing at her, urged her to join in. Finally, she stuttered out, “Narin, Narin” and, just for a fleeting second, there appeared the gravest smile, then came the weeping, the wracking gulps of air, the shaking. The others watched helplessly, unsure of what to do until Sally reached across to her left, put an arm around Narin’s shoulders and pulled her close.
Sam was mortified and started to reach over to the girl to comfort her, but caught Martha’s discouraging eye and retreated. “Sam, my love, it’s nothing you’ve done, nothing at all. You’ve done the most important thing, you’ve brought her to us where she can be protected and looked after. But men, some men, have done this to her, I don’t want to think about what she’s been through, but you need to leave this to me, Sally here, the doctor and perhaps the priest. Yes, I know he’s a man but something from her past means she has some trust in him. It will take time, kindness and endless patience, you need to be around, here, so that she knows you are watching out for her and protecting her, but not too close. Do you understand?”
He nodded, unhappily. “I wish I’d killed them myself, not let Georgy…”
His cold, flat killing tone, so matter-of-fact, was a greater shock to Sally than the words he had spoken. She had heard the circumstances of the rescue, but her mind had glossed over that part, finding it difficult to reconcile these kindly, loving people with such lethal actions. Now it was all too real confronting her across the dinner table in this little home in nowhere land. This boy and his comrades were killers, she couldn’t, wouldn’t, use the word murderers, but they had cold bloodedly killed a woman and a young man and probably others she didn’t know about. Oh, the pair undoubtedly deserved punishment of some kind, life sentences perhaps, but to hear the naked truth here and now was chilling. Who were they really, what were they? Were they just dead inside, as she feared her husband was becoming? No, she felt they weren’t, at least not Martha, Illtud and many of the others she had met, but they seemed to simply accept it. Furthermore, they seemed to believe she was becoming one of them. How wrong they must be, she hoped.
The other three cleared away while Sally sat there holding the girl, whose sobbing, slowly subsiding to a whimper eventually rested her head in her hands on the table. Sally looked helplessly at Martha who was watching from the kitchen door.
“Sally, my dear, could you go upstairs and get the things you bought her today, they’re on our bed. Iltud, can you go up and get the cloth as well? I think now might be the time.”
By the time they returned Martha had persuaded the girl to get up and go into the living room, where she sat on a rug on the floor, as if by habit. They passed the parcels, one by one, for her to examine, her bewilderment slowly transforming into wonder as she inspected each item of clothing, the house shoes and finally the rubber boots. These seemed to be the most amazing thing to her, running her fingertips over their seamlessly smooth outer surfaces, putting her arms inside trying to find something.
She started to smile and then lltud unrolled the bolt of Byzantine silk; the light from the oil lamps, which had been lit to complement the now fading daylight filtering in through the small cottage windows, reflected off the gold and silver threads, picking out the strings of tiny pearls, distorting and emphasising the tones of the other richer colours of the heavy silk. Martha, using gestures only, mimicked making a dress from the cloth for both Sally and the girl; the latter’s eyes and mouth opening in astonishment, her fingers exploring the cool, thick material, she excitedly emitted a stream of unintelligible vocabulary before throwing her arms around Martha, splashing her neck and shoulders with a renewed flow of tears.
Eventually, when she had been gently eased away from Martha and had subsided into a state approaching calm, she returned Martha’s gestures of making clothing out of the fabric cutting, sewing, measuring; pointing to both Sally and herself.
Martha smiled. “I think she’s saying she can help make the clothes, she’s probably better than me, she probably learned the skills, as a child, at her mother or grandmother’s knee. The challenge will do her good.”
Sam smiled at Martha, much happier now, “Mum, you’re a wonder, just like you did with me, you’re magic.”
What she didn’t hear was his real thoughts, ‘when he calls, I’ll be there, outside, and this time, no doubts, no regrets, no mercy at all.’
© 1642again 2018