Having been indoctrinated into my new task by the Colonel, I wandered into the town centre with his money to suit and boot myself. Jeans, T-shirt, top and trainers made way for a Marks and Spencers suit, brogues, collar and tie.
There was no need for a fitting. I’m an off the shelf kind of chap. The right shape and size, average in every way, to be equally and anonymously accommodated either on the picket line or at an early morning call to the gentleman’s clothing department.
An adjoining shopping arcade boasted a business card machine. I printed myself fifty tiny introductions, hoping I’d remembered my new employer’s phone number correctly. I ordered some stationery from Fast Print, who laminated a name badge for me while I waited. Thank goodness for the private sector, not a picket line in sight. Briefcase, notebook and pen were provided from a fourth-generation stationers. An emaciated second-hand briefcase, stamped with someone else’s initials, completed the makeover. I bulked it up with a newspaper, sandwich and carton of milk. “Tory Old Guard Caution Over Strike” was the broadsheet headline. Interesting.
My transformation from bolshy striker to respectable representative compete, I admired myself in a Post Office window beside a bus queue. “Businessman,” I said to myself, “or even politician. Two of the very few jobs you don’t need any qualifications for. All I require now is a customer or a voter to convince.”
I did have an opportunity. The Colonel had obliged me to a Mrs Johnson of Albemarle Street, number twenty-two. I was expected at 2 pm. Albermarle was near to my lodgings, close to the main road where myself and Davies were ordinarily picked up by the Colonel’s Transit van.
This was a quiet part of the town, halfway between the docks and the abattoir. Once a year, on Easter Day, the peace was shattered by local ruffians as they fought the Eastertide bladder-on-a-stick down to the docks or up to the supermarket car park where the playing field used to be. Apart from that, excitement was confined to twitching curtains. There was an outbreak of rendering along the plain terrace. Coloured plastic front doors were multiplying alongside hints of double glazing, as tribal warpaint was changing from working-class solidarity to consumer one-upmanship. The spirit of Mrs Thatcher moved upon the face of the damp cobblestones as though trying to banish the whiff of coal fire from the chimneys. Walking along, I realised this was one of those streets where, for the benefit of the neighbours, a colour television aerial might be attached to the roof of a house that didn’t have a colour television set.
Given the proximity to myself and Davies’s rooms, I also realised that Mrs Johnson might know me by sight. I prepared a plan, a narrative, a simple one-liner to prevent her from being too curious.
Number twenty-two was neatly presented to this caller, front step freshly polished in red, presumably that very morning in anticipation of my arrival. Mrs Johnson answered a front door that opened straight into a front room. The gas fire was lit, again for my benefit, it was a chilly April two bar afternoon.
I was gestured to a fireside seat and offered tea and biscuits placed on coasters that protected a small lacquered table embossed with the name of an unknown Italian harbour. No doubt having appeared bigger in the artisan’s workshop, next to the two-star package holiday hotel, it was a bonny little thing all the same.
As expected, Mrs Johnson remarked that she’d seen this face somewhere before. Having told me something of herself in furniture and cleanliness, I must repay the compliment in words.
“I was working for a gangmaster. For a while, until I got myself sorted out. This is my new job. More or less my first day. I’m afraid you’re going to have to do most of the work, Mrs Johnson.”
“Are you local?”
“Sort of. Went down south at the first chance. Thatcher. I was at Fellside school for a spell. Mr Moors was the head.”
I remembered the name of the shop girl who worked beneath mine and Davies’s flat.
“The Cartwrights were a few years below me. One of the sisters works in the corner store. Small world.”
Mrs J nodded all the way through my little presentation, appearing to be reassuringly taken in.
“Right,” I changed gear, “as I say, my first day. How did you find out about us, Mrs Johnson?”
First thing that morning, the Colonel had saved me from the picket lines and briefed me. The briefing had been quick. I wanted to hear everything again from Mrs J. It might sink in a bit deeper a second time around, and make more sense, having previously sounded a bit too good to be true, or even to be believed by clients.
“My neighbour,” she began confidently, “Mrs Mac, Mrs Mackay, pointed it out to me. Your advertisement in the Sleescale Journal, a classified, a little box she’d spotted.”
“An advertisement for?”
She pointed at my new Fast Print badge, ink still wet, laminate still warm. Speaking clearly, as though thinking me a bit slow, she read from it.
“The Royal and Industrial Insurance Company.”
In doing so, she reminded me to my business cards. I put my new briefcase on my lap, opened it up and handed her a card hoping it didn’t smell too much of egg and cress. I liberated my notebook and pen too, folding open the first page, licking the nib of my ink pen for the first time. This was more like it. This was what a research unit was supposed to be all about. The picket lines were forgotten about already, but not my black eye and chipped teeth.
Mrs Johnson stood and pushed my business card behind a mantelpiece carriage clock above the gas fire. Topping that was a mirror that showed herself and myself. Not a young woman, but neither old, I put her in her late forties. Towards the end of a well kept fifth decade, she was of slim figure and dyed and permed black hair. She wore the right amount of makeup and was nicely presented in a coloured house dress. Was there a whiff of scent as she put my business card behind the clock? There was definitely a jangle of jewellery around her wrist and a gold band on her wedding finger. Not single, she didn’t seem married either, I pushed myself to draw a conclusion from the evidence presented. I wrote ‘widow’ in my notebook in tiny letters.
She resumed her seat, crossing her legs and looking straight at me with an intense gaze from hazel eyes. I had time to underline ‘widow’ three times while she asked, in a concerned voice,
“What happened to your eye?”
“A bit of a punch up with the local lads. I’ve been away so long they think I’m an incomer. Don’t get me wrong, I can look after myself,” I exaggerated, “but I let them get it out of their system to stop it from happening again.”
I handed her some more business cards, any excuse to reach out to her.
“If you know anyone else who might benefit from R & I’s help, who might be in the same situation as yourself.”
She took them from me, her hand touching mine unnecessarily, and placed them on the arm of her chair. She got back to business.
“I phoned the number in the advert. Your office took my details and said someone would call. I don’t like to think of myself as entitled. But it’s what’s right. Mrs MacKay reminded me that that’s what Mr Johnson might have wanted.”
Liking the idea of having my own office, I grew in confidence.
“Royal and Industrial specialise in helping people like yourself, Mrs Johnson, our pleasure, nothing to be self-conscious about,” I said in equal measures of reassurance and bluff.
“I understand from your office that it might be possible to start a claim before paying a premium or signing anything?” she asked.
“There’s sufficient leeway in the system to allow for all kinds of payments. I might make a claim myself,” I was recalling what the Colonel had told me in his briefing. I trusted the old chap with my life and would follow him over a cliff, but the proposition he had outlined in the Transit van only a few hours ago had sounded a bit far fetched. His focus was on using infiltration to provide bad karma to striking miners. It wasn’t on me, glamorous widows or a fake insurance company set up by a government department to fish for something. To fish for what exactly? I could feel a fog of war about me.
A photograph sat on the mantlepiece to the left of the carriage clock, between two other frames that portrayed Charles and Dianna and the Queen. I should have spotted it earlier. It was sepia and showed a kindly looking young man in uniform. Say what you see.
“Might this claim relate to Mr Johnson’s service?” I asked.
She nodded. I needed to fish a little harder, Mrs Johnson had to do more. I had to pretend to be thick.
“Is he available? Maybe he could fill me in himself?”
“Mr Johnson passed away recently.”
“Oh, excuse me,” I had to pretend to be surprised. I pointed to his photo, in my line of work reading cap badges, epaulettes and the cut of a jib is compulsory. “And he was a Senior Aircraftman in the RAF? Judging by the palm trees he’s standing in front of, not at Lyneham or Aldergrove.”
“A long time ago, before we married,” she replied, “he was in Singapore. I think that might be what caused his death.”
To be continued……
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file