Myself and my colleague Natasha are squatted on her studio floor beside open curtains looking at the nighttime lives of others. Safely in darkness, to ensure our scantily dressed shapes aren’t silhouetted to the outside world, Natasha wears a knee-length baggy t-shirt as a nightdress. I’m in my office shirt, buttons in all the wrong holes. My tie is on the floor next to her bed. My feet are bare having been drawn from her sheets by the call of open drapes. On the other side of the Dolphin Square quadrangle, some are not so discreet or so innocent. Natasha and I snuggle into each other for warmth. I pass her opera glasses back to her. I’ve spotted something.
“Whose flat is that?” I ask while pointing at a window through which two people are visible.
She named a Liberal MP. The theatrical Sir Selwyn Gross, famous both in the House of Commons and in the tabloids for his interest in young people’s issues.
“Why do they keep the curtains open?” I asked. “Especially when doing that.”
“A sign to likeminded people, Worth. Like an earring or a parting.
I reminded her that I had a parting and that she, tucked behind her light downy hair, had studs in her tiny earlobes. Studs that I’d only just discovered in an interrupted moment of intimacy. After a busy and unsettling day, Natasha had unexpectedly wanted me to stay the night. She assured me that there were different types of partings. Mine was just right, but if I ever heeded an urge for pierced ears, I should consult with her for advice first. Her ear studs were unsuspicious she announced, “Because I’m a girl, stupid.”
Better than unsuspicious, her ears were perfect and the slender neck beneath them irresistible. Natasha’s bed called but so did duty.
“Secret signals exist between members of subcultures,” she confided. “Doing it in front of the window is just one of the more obvious ones.”
I called it exhibitionism. I told her it was wrong and bad and disgusting and rubbed other people’s faces in dirt. Given Sir Selwyn’s inclination, I would even call it illegal. Illegality that went unchallenged because of a corrupt establishment’s manipulation of the law. I suggested that the powerlessness of those revolted by Sir Selwyn was part of the thrill for the MP.
“Everything in life is about sex, except sex which is about power,” I recalled.
“Wouldn’t be exhibitionism if we weren’t watching,” she said, sounding somewhat shamefaced.
“Are you sure anything is actually happening?” Natasha added, squinting hard. “Such an awfully long way away. I can make out two figures, one of them obese enough to be Sir Selwyn but apart from that, I couldn’t be certain. Are you sure this isn’t your vivid self-righteousness playing tricks with you again?”
I took the glasses from her and used them for a good, long stare. She was correct. Little detail could be seen, but I was satisfied the movement of the shapes was sufficient for my imagination to fill any gaps accurately.
“Have you ever stayed on a farm?” I asked her.
She told me not to be ridiculous, and to say exactly what I meant. She reminded me that part of the problem with louche establishment behaviour, and the protection of the vulnerable young, was repressed prudes like me. She scolded me for beating about the bush in embarrassed euphemisms which resulted in nobody knowing what the vulnerable youth were supposed to be being protected from.
I cupped my hands around her ear and whispered exactly what I thought I’d seen during my turn with the glasses.
“I couldn’t make that out,” she sniggered. “This is your repressed mind. Let’s go back to bed and play our own farmyard game.”
She stood but then squatted down again.
“And anyway. What’s it to do with you or anybody else what happens in private when two consent?”
“It’s disgusting and Sir Selwyn’s companions are too young,” I told her. “This isn’t the first time this has happened. You sometimes bump into them on my corridor, staggering around in the middle of the night, barely out of school and barely with a towel around them”
She went to the open curtains and pressed herself to the window.
“Nope, I can’t make out a birth certificate, and even if I did, I don’t think I’d be able to read it.”
She gasped and then feigned surprise, saying that what she could see were moving lips.
“No, you can’t.”
“Yes I can, and I can tell what they’re saying.”
“No you can’t,” I repeated, before adding plaintively, “Can you?”
“Uh-huh,” she replied confidently. Sir Selwyn and his younger companion were talking about a peeping sad man who sells rumours and half-baked intelligence to gossip columns.
“Hold on a minute,” I interrupted.
“And the saddo thinks the rest of his department don’t realise.”
“I’ll stop you now.”
“He even takes money for, the department suspects, discrediting people in public life who are a bit too enthusiastic about the European Community.”
She rhymed off a list of ne’er do well newspaper proprietors who might be in league over such a thing. She tacked my name onto the end of the sentence for effect, before pulling herself away from the window and wriggling to the floor behind me. She put an arm around me as though we were going to play wrestle.
“And having trousered the cash,” she continued, raising her voice. “He expects me to do most of the work for none of the money.”
By now, Natasha had one arm around my neck and was none too gently hammering a fist into my back. I was tempted to put an elbow into her middle and strike her forehand by jerking my head backwards, but I was aware that she might have been taught all of the counter moves. They say that Italians think the best thing about an attachment between a man and a woman is talking about it the next day. Likewise, I was concerned that our department’s next day gossip might be of me being beaten up by a girl.
Instead, I would protect myself with sweet reason and distraction. I began to chant a litany of problematic establishment figures with unnatural interests. Natasha chanted back what had happened to them.
“Prosecuted under a false name, retired on a full pension.”
“Prosecuted under his middle name, promised to leave public life and didn’t.”
“Got away with it.”
“Got away with it.”
“Victim disappeared. I’m aware of the routine, Worth. Life isn’t what you want it to be. Is going around the track one more time with your operation Swaling going to make any difference?”
I asked her if she’d ever wondered why Profumo was the biggest scandal ever and yet no one ever mentioned Playworld.
“Because Profumo was a Tory minister, silly, moonlighting as an Italian waiter. A double standard exists, what a surprise. Nothing’s going to change.”
“Two things have changed,” I reassured her. The latest surveillance equipment was breathtakingly advanced and very compact. The new-fangled silicone chip that she may have seen on the news was starting to appear in cameras and microphones, changing the game completely.
“The reason there are no pictures to back up the gossip column stories and court cases is because it’s such a damn fiddle. All that has altered with the new technology. I’ve ordered the latest kit for Swaling. People making an exhibition of themselves in the middle of the night hundreds of yards away don’t realise what’s going to hit them. Here’s our chance to right a wrong.”
As an afterthought, I felt obliged to add, “And I’ll cut you in on the money side of things, honest.”
“O..K..,” said Natasha. Drawing out the ‘O’ and the ‘K’ sounds for as long she could, as if cautiously forgiving me. “At least I’ll have my hols in Tangiers during the coldest April since records began.”
Now was an opportunity to tell her that it wasn’t until July. There was a reason for that. When Parliament was in recess and the media lapsed into a silly season, a certain type of libertine de-camped to North Africa for a particular type of recreation. Once there, they would be off their guard and easy to ensnare.
“A trip to Tangiers in the summer?” She responded. “It gets better.”
“You’re not going,” I was forced to say. “The yanks have offered me the equipment, but I need a technician who knows how to use it. He’ll be a big, fat, ugly guy. It’ll be torture.”
From number two in Swaling International, I’d promoted her to head of Swaling Domestic. Unimpressed, she sighed.
“You’re the lucky one,” I told her. “At least you can start now. I’m at a loose end until the summer. They’ll be sending me back to Ulster. Or, knowing my luck, up the north to use my language skills as an agent provocateur on a miner’s picket line.”
“You mean I’m going to have to do all of this down here in London on my own?”
She pulled the curtains closed and sat on the opera glasses.
“If I can draw your attention away from your little pastime for a few moments, tell me what I have to do. And, besides the new gadgets,” She had been listening more carefully than I’d realised, “What’s the other thing that’s changed?”
To be continued…….
© Always Worth Saying 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file