“Beau Peeper? Classy. From some kind of top-shelf magazine one hears about? The things you do for Queen and country, Worth.”
I’m showing Natasha my exhibit ‘A’, a newspaper cutting I hope will persuade her to join my newly approved Operation Swaling. We are sat opposite each other at her window-side work desk in her cramped room at Dolphin Square. Through the open curtains, on a dark April evening, hundreds of windows stare towards us accusingly, as though they know what we’re up to.
At the top of the tabloid gossip column cutting, Beau Peeper’s cartoon five o’clock shadow face smirked smutily above a plunging neckline showing his hairy chest. As well as being dressed as a shepherdess, complete with shepherd’s crook, he held a pair of field glasses. The shepherd’s crook ensnared a crudely drawn middle-aged man, in ecclesiastical dress, with his trousers around his ankles.
“Gentleman’s magazine? Far from it,” I reassured her, “Beau Peeper is from a popular red-topped tabloid, twenty pence dreadful. Loved by millions. The Daily Postal, you must have heard of it? Beau Peeper exposes all of those spies, Hong Kong gangsters and MPs who dress up as schoolgirls.”
“I don’t read,” she juggled the cutting about, trying to think of a better name for the publication, eventually deciding upon, “The Daily Crap.”
“A rather spiteful but well-researched column,” I informed her. In among the unfunny, bad jokes and adolescent humour, the Beau Peeper column told a few important truths to power. The identity of the author was a well-guarded secret. He was rumoured to be a lower-middle-class provincial type, uncorrupted by big-city ways, but a bit of a Walter Mitty.
“Even his editor isn’t aware of his real name,” I confided to Natasha while tapping my nose. “You should hear what he has to say about that new panel show, Mr Robin Day’s Question Time.”
I began to laugh. A useless but slim and pretty new MP called Miss Abbott had been on the previous Thursday night making a fool of herself. At least she’d soon return to obsurity.
“Beau Peeper said he ‘would’ “, I said to Natasha, beginning to laugh uncontrollably.
“Would what?” She asked, making me laugh more.
Natasha decided that the anonymous author of Beau Peeper was one of those, “Unfunny right-wing so-called comedians hired by the tabloids to tick a box,” before addressing the column. Quoting selectively, she read aloud the interesting bits,
“Ortonesque? Orientalist position? Nubian relations? North African mandarin inclination? What on earth’s he on about? Can anybody understand this drivel? Does anything ever happen in this column?”
“You have to read it every week,” I assured her. “And buy the book.”
“Why are you showing me this?” She wondered.
“A named VIP has been spotted in Tangiers with an Arab boy hiding under his bed, and they want us on the case.”
“How do you work all of that out? And who are ‘they’?” Natasha wondered, in an irritated tone.
“Orientalists, a Tangiers set, louche behaviour. Read Beau Peeper every week, you soon begin to understand the references.”
“Does this named VIP have a name? Perhaps in an Exhibit ‘B’?” she said.
“Look at what’s next to it,” I instructed her.
She ran her fingers around the edge of the cutting.
“Difficult to tell, you’ve ripped it off. Judging by the last word in each column. An MP? The European Community?”
“Julian Minsk. A picture of him was in the neighbouring article. That’s how these things are put into the public domain. Somebody high up is calling our attention to Minsk. It’s called ‘narrowcasting’. Hence me putting in an application for a new intelligence-gathering operation and including your name on it. Game on?”
“Let’s discuss this over dinner,” was Natasha’s descision.
“Where are you taking me?” I responded with some enthusiasm.
We adjourned to the kitchen. I chopped and peeled the veg. Natasha turned a chicken fillet for one into chicken in sauce for two. A half bottle of wine appeared from her half-height refrigerator. Her desk became a dining table. There were even candles, stockpiled in anticipation of power cuts because of the miner’s strike.
Through open curtains, we could see other apartment windows as we ate. I shouted out a few famous names. She responded by telling me where their rooms were. The complex provided subsidised accommodation close to Westminster for all kinds of ne’er do wells from low-grade officials like ourselves to senior figures in public life. Some of whom had a bit of a reputation. Reputation’s difficult to escape in an inward-looking quadrangle like Dolphin Square.
Later, over her empty plate, she noted, “I’m surprised our superiors gave this the nod.”
“They didn’t, I went above their heads,” I replied from over mine and its accompanying empty wine glass, “To the Minister’s office.”
“You’ll be popular.”
Previously, I had been a little too popular with our head of department, who tended to become handsy with the young men in the section. Natasha had had a similar experience with one of her superiors. We had decided to do something about it, but the wheels had ground slowly and between dead-end and dead-end. The newspaper column, and a quickly prepared operation proposition, had set me off again but I needed Natasha’s help.
I would get into her good books by excusing myself with the dirty dishes. An irritating little boiler with a spout was stuck to her kitchen wall next to the sink. It took forever to warm up and was then too hot. Upon returning to her studio room, I was expecting to be harangued and have to argue my case vigorously. I was in for a surprise. Natasha had relaxed into her nightclothes, a long plain tee shirt fronted with a colourful motif. Pulled slightly up, an unnecessary amount of thin pale leg was showing. My surprise turning to disappointment, I assumed this a signal that it was time for me to leave. In itself, a signal that I’d misunderstood her signal.
“There’s something else if you want,” she said.
The documentation that had been snook into her flat by a Z Branch messenger earlier in the day lay beside her on the bed. I knelt to take a look. She’d signed her part of the permissions. Excellent.
I thanked her but hesitated before standing again. A long silence followed. It became awkward and then tender. Although I found her attractive, I didn’t like her. Men can be complicated too. Just to make the tangle impossible, she disliked me even more while finding me even more attractive.
“You don’t have to go,” she whispered.
I ran my hand over the outside of her nightdress. She was all bones and trembling.
“You’re too thin,” I told her, genuinely concerned. She undid the top two buttons of my shirt and put her hand inside it.
“You’re not my dad and you’ve got hairy shoulders,” she said with a wince.
Now was the time to address the curtains. I managed to pull the left one closed, but as soon as I clutched the right one, I became mesmerised. The windows opposite, rows and rows of them, columns and columns, dazzled. Some were dark, some were lit, some had curtains closed, some had curtains open showing matchstick figures moving about in the rooms. I crouched and stared.
“What are you doing?” Natasha hissed from the bed.
“Where are your binoculars?” I needed to know. “Under the mattress? In a draw?”
“I don’t have any binoculars.”
“Yes you do, everybody does. Everybody spies on everybody.”
She confessed to a pair of opera glasses and liberated them from beneath a folded blouse on a shelf in her wardrobe before kneeling behind me. She put both of her arms around my neck and placed the glasses to my eyes. My chest, with its unbuttoned shirt, was cold. My back, with Natasha’s figure pressed against it, drew the warmth from her.
“Are you some kind of pervert?” She asked, not confrontationally but as though in excited anticipation. “Do you like watching it instead of doing it?” Again, in curiosity rather than accusation, as though hoping to recognise something kindred.
“Of course not, but there are similarities,” I replied. “The thrill of the chase. The excitement of the hunt. And, spotting something unexpected.”
I handed her the glasses and pointed to a window.
To be continued….
© Always Worth Saying 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file