Myself and Davies were sat on a hilltop (the flat limestone pavement type) in our bivvys and sleeping bags, squashed together for warmth. We faced towards the coast. At the horizon, a flat sea was about to conceal a sinking sun.
Our breath had been visibly spilling from both of our mouths all day, now frost was forming on the outside of his bag. A positive sign, he told me. All his body heat was staying inside whereas some of mine was warming the fresh air. On our expeditions I was used to being cold, wet and wrong. On that day, I had reason to remain cheerful and optimistic all the same.
Looking into the distance, I adjusted the eyepieces on my field glasses to bring my present point of maximum concentrated effort into finely focused view.
“Guess what I’m looking at.”
“Military establishment, the secret sort,” he replied.
“How did you work that out? I’ve been interviewing retirees and worker’s relatives for weeks and only just realised.”
In my Royal and Industrial Insurance Company disguise, I’d been teasing out information using as a carrot the possibility of workplace insurance claims without any premiums to be paid.
“I can tell from here. I don’t even need binoculars,” snapped Davies.
Through the glasses, the secret base presented as rows of sheds on flat land before the start of the estuary. Between the buildings were embankments. Coming from them, tracks, and rising from them, masts and chimneys.
Also between them were roads catching the last of the day’s sun as was a sharp silver line of gentle curves that I assumed to be the presence of an industrial railway.
“Plus we ran past it one day,” Davies recalled.
“Did we? I can’t remember spotting that.”
“You’re not supposed to. Hedge around the perimeter, especially thick beside the road. Nothing to look at here, keep on running. With thirty-thirty vision and an ability to crick your neck to two hundred and seventy degrees, you might spot a gate keeper’s house. If you can see through hedges and around corners, you might find the alert state warning sign.”
“Oh,” I responded, disheartened.
“And on our Ordnance Survey map. You’ve been staring at it all day during your turns to navigate.”
This was where Davies was plain wrong. I enjoyed my maps and charts. Although I don’t like to boast, I have a research department wallah’s intuitive knack of which way round they go, what all the symbols mean and how long it’s going to take to get from place to place.
I also have a remarkable ability to point to magnetic north with my eyes closed, even after being spun round and round by my companion. On our expeditions such things passed the time after we’d run out of things to talk about. As did who could hold their breath for the longest or waggle their ears the most times in a minute. Idle hands.
The captain reckoned I’d spent my childhood sleeping in a strong magnetic field. Perhaps my council house was south facing and next to an electricity substation? The built environment had done to me what God and nature had done to the homing pigeon, he’d decided. In my defence, I’d only briefly lived in a council flat and one which was nowhere near to a substation.
Added to this, I spent much of my early life at an austere public school and the rest of it in the colonies. In both locations, things such as electricity were a bit of a novelty. But that didn’t count. Davies needed a theory for everything and once decided upon his grandes idées tended to stick no matter what the counter-argument. Come to think of it, I was much the same. Occasionally though, in a small moment of victory which helped my morale, my insight appeared to trump his.
“Nothing on the map,” I told him triumphantly.
“Exactly. A space. Couldn’t be more suspicious. No houses, no fields, no farm, no disused quarry or salt pans, no church without a spire. Just a gap with something secret built in it.”
He did have a point.
“And a ‘danger area’ marked in red from the coast to well out to sea to keep nice people far away. Couldn’t be more obvious.”
“I thought the danger area might be about unexploded shells?” I said.
“It might be,” he agreed. “Land sequestered during the war, munitions factory or something. Test the munitions all day and all night, without bothering anybody, by lobbing them into the sea. End of the war, shut up shop, Johnny Commie rattles the sabre, something must be done. Mandarin in Whitehall points to a pin on the map on the wall. Whatever the hell needs doing, do it a long way from Surrey. Here, what’s this place? Sleescale, the old munitions factory. Belongs to the Crown, locals will be pleased of the jobs.”
He was close enough. Plodding through the old newspapers in Sleescale library I’d found mention of a wartime ‘filling factory’ which became RAF something or other then disappeared altogether from the local publication of record, The Sleescale Journal.
Sports teams and the model railway club had bothered the inside back pages for a few years more but then changed their names. I could spot that kind of thing in a microfiche archive in the same way that Captain Davies might spy an alert state warning through a thick hedge on a sharp corner.
“Have you any idea what they do there?” I wondered.
“Nope. Not yet. Give me the glasses.”
I handed them to him.
“What’s wrong with your eyes,” he exclaimed as he fiddled the eyepieces to his own focus.
“Something with explosives. Frightened it goes pop. Plenty of embankments, dozens of lightning conductors, high ones. That’s a fire station. The Ministry of Defence uses the same design everywhere, seen them on army camps. A little railway between the sheds connects to the big railway on the mainline. Distributed long distances. Too far for a lorry and too large or too heavy or too important for a truck. Sea’s a strange colour. Something hot is discharged into the water, making different stuff grow there.”
He drew a conclusion and sprinkled a little irony on the top, “Processing plant that builds something important and explosive. Can’t imagine what that can be.”
I was disappointed. I thought I was the only one in the world who knew where the secret nuclear base was. I told him so.
“THE secret nuclear base?” He asked mockingly.
“You mean there’s half a dozen?”
“Half a thousand, more like,” he estimated. “I told you that television is going to be bigger than the coal and steel industries combined? The bomb is bigger than the lot of them. Stuff everywhere. You’ve heard of supply chains? Why do you think all the factories in Sleescale are busy even though the mines are on strike? Why do you think they need all these power stations nearby. ”
“Really? I didn’t realise that.”
“You’re not supposed to, it’s a bloody secret. Don’t want picket lines full of lefties, hippies and union types turning up and blocking the roads and railway lines do we?”
As ever, the enemy was within. Davies made no mention of the Soviets, who we could assume without saying so knew where everything was courtesy of their surveillance satellites and the more than occasional establishment Communist spy.
“The defining structure of any society is the preparation for war. Why I joined the army, instead of being a TV star or a miner. War, bread and circuses, all there is.”
I told him that the nuclear factory was getting the blame for local ill health which is why I being kept busy, and well informed, through London’s fake insurance company. You didn’t have to be a hippy, only a concerned citizen.
“The reason the sea’s a funny colour is because of the radioactivity,” I confided in him, “if we sit here for long enough we’ll notice the glow in the dark.”
“Plankton, the photo stuff, that’s what I would tell them. Light-emitting plankton attracted by the warmth from the discharge. And they’re good for you. Full of nutrients. The fish eat them and then you eat the fish, courtesy of those smelly tubs full of ice and wriggly things being unloaded at Port Sleescale at four in the morning.”
I reminded him that one had to be honest.
“Here’s your choice,” he barked back,” One in a thousand chance of dying at the nuclear bomb factory, one in a hundred chance of dying down a coal mine. Which would you prefer?”
He made the obvious counter-argument, but one that could be easily demolished with a single photo of a local child made ill from radioactivity, which is what London had been telling me to fish for.
Not for the first time, a big chap usually in uniform snapped at a smaller chap always in civvies,
“Whose side are you actually on?”
I took the binoculars from him and turned to the opposite direction. I had to stand up. Out there, somewhere, far away from the mountain top and surrounded by grouse moor rather than sheds and radioactive sea, was the country house of the local MP.
“Our side, obviously,” I reassured Davies, “unlike wobbly wet Tory toff Sir Fergus MacDee, who, although he doesn’t realise it, is in need of a bit of insurance.”
“Surprise me,” insisted my companion inquisitively.
“Sir Fergus has a constituency surgery on Wednesday morning. Turn up to it with me, I’ll surprise the pair of you.”
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file