A Queen’s Messenger had called through the night with a letter. Unhelpfully, I was asleep under a bed at the time. My colleague, Natasha, took the call but, also unhelpfully, had gone work before I’d woken. A note for me lay on her desk, but written cryptic. The QM’s delivery was hidden in our special place. News to me, I didn’t realise myself and Natasha had a special place.
“Out of my flat,” she’d added straightforwardly. Not offended, I was used to that kind of sentiment. I mustn’t wear her clothes. Not sure I might be able to squeeze into them even if I was that way inclined. Although I am missing my shirt, Natasha needed it for a disguise. Life in our section is never dull. Keep out of the kitchen, don’t use my shower. If you must use the bathroom, make sure you put the seat down when you’ve finished. There’s the clue. The toilet seat being the only thing I’m allowed to touch, I shall do just that and see where it takes me.
A shelf of toiletries sits below the mirror above her washbasin. Bottles that include opera glasses. A little something that only myself and Natasha, after the previous night’s excitement, would understand the significance of. Not quite square with the glass shelf, do they point somewhere? Pointing at the bathroom door beyond which is a vent on her corridor wall? A find a stool and a knife. In doing so, I break one of Natasha’s little rules and violate her kitchen. I take a close up recce of the vent and frame. The sides are painted to the walls, screws unscratched. It not having been interfered with, I’m reminded of, “Out of my flat.” I drag my stool and knife through the front door to the outside corridor where, as expected, there is another vent. Caught standing on a stool shirtless, attacking a scratched vent with a knife, being rather tame for this debased postcode, I get on with it. A minute later, I am able to pull the frame away from the wall. Inside, a little way back, is my letter from the Queen.
I take it out, put everything back where it was, retire to Natasha’s apartment and sit on her bed. Embossed with ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ and with ‘Mr Worth’ written across the middle in an immaculate hand, you could call it a postcard from Lilibet. Opened up and opened out, I speed read through the pages before going through them one word at a time. Interesting times. Lots to do. It will keep me busy until July when the overseas part of my operation Swaling calls. Until July I’m seconded to operation Ariel whose proposition’s keywords are, ‘coal’, ‘miner’ and ‘strike’.
The concourse at London Euston Station is a disappointing concrete box ahead of ramps leading to northbound platforms. I stand to one side of a pillar, pretending to be invisible, observing the rattle board opposite, waiting for my train to be announced. Too late in the morning for arriving commuters, travellers with bags and folded coats stand or mingle about me.
“Disgusting,” says a stranger who has been standing beside me for a few moments. His luggage, a pack similar to mine, is at his feet, a newspaper in his hands. He has lowered it to speak, revealing a crew cut and lantern jaw topping and tailing a thin face centred by all seeing blue eyes. He is a stretched version of myself, stretched all the way up to 6′ 3′ and all the way out to shoulders like a beasts.
“Excuse me?” I reply.
“Can’t you see what’s going on?”
“Can’t say I can.”
“Watch the police woman.”
A police woman approached a boy sat on a bench.
“Keep watching,” my new companion instructed.
The police woman and the boy exchanged a few words. He seemed to show a train ticket or some such before she wandered away. The youngster slouched.
“Keep on looking.”
A man approached and sat beside the boy.
“Like jackals. Away from home for the first time. Big city. Dozens arrive every day from the provinces and dozens more are out to catch them.”
“The old one two?” I suggest. “Policeman plod softens them up and gives a nod for a backhander?”
“Naa,” he disagreed. “My fiancé’s a police officer. Having a convicted offender in your personal file feels a lot better than a bent tenner in your pocket.”
“She on the Met?”
“Ruralshire. But they have their moments.”
“Bright lights down here, matey,” I remind him. “Can turn a few heads.”
He changed the subject, “You’re Worth, aren’t you?”
“I’m Davies, Captain Davies to you. You’re expecting me.”
I was. It was 11:30 am, I was beside a column opposite the rattle board. I had a Daily Mail tucked under my arm, open and folded on the crossword page – as instructed by the Queen. To the initiated, I would have been difficult to miss. We shook hands. He almost broke my fingers. Professional parents, house in a middle class area, top flight state school rather than private, backbone of the country. You can tell a lot from a handshake.
I looked to up him, for reasons other than he was half a foot taller than me. In a world and a time when some were cynical about the military, I was keen, even a little jealous. I didn’t know him yet, but I knew his type. The type who’d kept me safe in Ulster and saved my little squeeze’s (an RUC police woman cadet at the time) life. I was relieved that Davies was on board, but not too pleased at what he had to say next.
“By the way, I’m bashing myself into shape for stab at a promotion. Elite forces selection. Hope you don’t mind.”
Of course I didn’t, I wished him luck.
“You can do better than that,” he retorted. “Don’t like doing it on my own. Not the type who’s keen on his own company. Not a bad thing. Don’t want loners, want team players. Best thing about this Lancashire Yorkshire mines kerfuffle is the evenings and weekends. Moundy whatsits with snow capped tops up the north. Long, thin holes in the ground full of cold wet stuff. Packs on our backs, you and me, Worth, running up mountains, sleeping out, swimming across lakes, that kind of thing. Grateful to you for volunteering.”
I don’t realise that I had done and said so.
“Got a scroll off the Queen inviting you to take up her commission in one of the better regiments have you, Worth? Thought not, you’ll do as your told. I’ll carry the worst of the kit, only fair.”
What I did have from the Army was a bit of paper photocopied so many times you could hardy read it. After commiserating with me, I was invited to apply again next year. It was filed away with other unsuccessful attempts to join such things as the Foreign Legion and the clergy. Not to bother, I’d fallen on my feet in my current department – thus far.
“The useful thing about volunteering for what you’ve been told to volunteer for, is it saves a lot of decision making effort,” Davies observed. “It’ll do you a lot of improvement too, in between causing trouble for striking miners. Fresh air, oxygen, adrenaline, sunshine. Possibly not so much sunshine up the north. Apart from that….”
At that point, my new boss was interrupted by our northbound departure appearing on the rattle board.
It was a compartment train, Myself and Davies had one of them to ourselves. Our only other companions being our packs in the luggage rack. Rattling through the track-work as the service left Euston, I would break the ice further by telling an interesting fact.
“Camden Bank was so steep for the early steam trains that they had to be hauled up it with the assistance of a roped incline and a stationary engine.”
My companion proved to be as keen on anything moving, noisy and made of tin as I was. The journey might pass well.
“Driver just pulls a bloody big handle a bit further these days,” he noted.
That remarkable thing called ‘electricity’. Power on tap. Power from the giant generating plants on top of northern coalfields now on strike. Passing carriage sidings and sheds, earlier arrivals were being worked on, being cleaned and maintained. One of the previous night’s sleeper trains from Scotland was being backed into the carriage sheds by a shunter. Gathering speed, we conquered the gradient as we left central London. Slow lines slew away from us to the right as our fast lines curved into the castellated entrance to Camden tunnel.
‘Slam’. We entered the tunnel. Enclosed air pushed ahead of the locomotive and backwards past the open window vent, sucking the oxygen out of our compartment. Ears popped in the darkness. ‘Woomph’. Leaving the tunnel, accelerating further, we were surprised by another ‘whoomp’ as a train coming the other way passed in a blur of windows. Ba da da dum, ba da da dum, ba da da dum.
I thought I’d try my luck. Have a little fishing trip, if only for my own peace of mind. I needed a sounding board, someone to agree with me without realising that they were agreeing with me.
“You know we’re infiltrating the coal miner’s union,” I said to Davies.
“Yes, I do, I have read the proposition.”
“To gather intelligence and cause a bit of bother for them, preferably in front of the TV cameras.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“I wonder if,” I had to chose my words and tone of voice with care, as though I was thinking this up as I spoke. “I wonder if anybody has thought about infiltrating the jackals who prey on runaway youngsters arriving in London. Must be some kind of organisation behind it. If not the the vice trade proper, something more loosely, informally, based. Might be worth suggesting that. What do you think?”
“Absolutely not. Definite no, no,” replied Davies, leaning forward earnestly. “Too dangerous. Somebody could be killed.”
“Sure?” I responded, beginning a cold sweat, thinking of Natasha sitting around railway termini in her runaway’s disguise, waiting be approached. “Why do you say that?”
“Inside info,” he tapped his nose. “Fiancé’s a police officer. Lose talk on mess nights. Wait till you hear this.”
To be continued…….
© Always Worth Saying 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file