“Very nice,” declared the Colonel while the pair of us looked towards a bungalow, stable block and paddock, one of a number of exclusive homes sitting in a knot about twenty minutes drive from the town via twisty country roads between high hedges.
“Sleescale’s millionaire’s row,” he added.
Behind the property were views of the estuary and the hills beyond. Columns of cloudy vapour rising from distant power stations interrupted an endless blue sky.
I took my chance earlier that morning, waiting at a pick-up point on speck, hoping the Colonel would stop for me despite my suit and shiny shoes. Pretending to be an insurance representative, rather than a picket line trouble maker, got me wolf-whistles and told to keep hidden. I hunkered down at the back of the minibus next to two girls who fought with a small box. Dangling wires suggested it to a car that needed to be tracked.
I tried to make conversation.
“Under a flying picket’s Cortina, ladies?”
I was ignored.
“Used them in Ulster. Want a hand?”
I was ignored again as they kept on fiddling with wiry, sticky, magnetic components, practising and practising and practising to attach it correctly first time in less than five seconds when duty called.
There was a suspicion that between drop-offs and pick-ups the Colonel didn’t do much. Sure, he’d been spotted as if some kind of mythological creature in all kinds of likely and unlikely places. Walking along the beach. Sat in the bookies. Driving a hire car towards the motorway, perhaps dashing to his Midland’s county shire home to see his family for all of half an hour before racing back to mother us.
Otherwise, maybe he did little more than follow Her Majesty’s standing orders of phoning London every day and keeping up to date with events via the media? I flattered myself that running me into the countryside after dropping everybody else had been a pleasant change for him.
I remarked of the bungalow,
“Fertile territory for the Royal and Industrial Insurance Company. Today’s interviewee left the Crown service after an industrial accident. Got his hand caught in the till. Now he has the cheek to contact R&I with a sob story. London has been through his personal file and administered me some ammo. Should be a pleasant little surprise for him and some worthwhile hunting for me.”
“Greed and fear. Trap well baited,” the Colonel observed.
He paused to tap his cigarette ash on the dashboard. It was too cold to wind the window down. The smallest of gaps allowed a minimum of smoke out and insufficient fresh air in.
“Speaking of which,” he continued, “want a lift back when you’re finished?”
“What’s this all about, Worth?” He asked.
“No can say, Colonel, operational matter, plus, I’m not a hundred percent certain I know myself.”
Armed with the utility of greed and fear, my companion felt able to reply,
“Bugger off in that case. Pay for a taxi after you’ve finished, or walk back in the cold.” With a struggle, he started the spluttering engine and threatened to take his foot off the brake to abandon me.
“There is something,” I remarked, “swaps?”
“It’s a deal,” he replied, his curiosity of my insurance man disguise overcoming caution.
He switched the engine off again. It kept running anyway. He took the key out of the ignition. It still kept running. He bounced his feet against the pedals until the engine stalled with a heavy jerk.
“On the way down from London,” I began, “I got talking to Davies. He shared a few confidences. Secret squirrel stuff. I wouldn’t want to get a chap into trouble and, to be blunt, I agree with him. But he went a bit too far. Bit too much loose talk, I think he might be getting paranoid. Also, on another occasion, middle of the night, long day, tired and all that, he mentioned the protocol. I thought that was a bit out of order and would like to pass it all by you, if that’s OK?”
The Colonel picked me up wrongly. Perhaps understandably, he thought I was referring to his current operation and set off at somewhat of a tangent to what I had intended.
“We’re all a bit paranoid, Worth, it is a bit intense. Chaps are away from home, stuck up here, not exactly the West End is it? Living in a bubble, little things are exaggerated. What are the pair of you doing to let off a bit of steam?”
I told him we went running. Davies was beating himself into shape for his promotion and possible selection into the special forces. I told him we would run to a neighbouring town at the weekend with all our kit. On the way back we’d camp out overnight on a local hill.
“There’s quite a view from the top apparently, especially with the right weather, temperature and time of day.”
I was having a little fishing trip. The Colonel didn’t flicker, either swimming straight past the bait or not realising that bait it was. Hopefully, all would become clear on the summit of the hill in the weekend middle of the night. It gave an excellent view of the coastline and something had cropped up in my research that I needed to check out. Something the Colonel didn’t seem to be aware of.
I sat quietly, allowing him to fill the silence and, still on his tangent, accidentally tell me something I hadn’t asked of.
“Just because Davies is paranoid doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
The Colonel started to tell me of mountains of coal and months of overtime worked before the strike. Production exceeded demand to create a cushion. The power stations could run for the best part of a year, even with half the mines idle. The law had changed in the previous parliament and outlawed large picket lines and secondary industrial action in ancillary industries. The strike had been provoked by announcing the closure of mines previously protected by an agreement between the government, union and Coal Board. All happening at the turn of the spring, the beginning of a long run of lower demand for coal.
“I feel a bit sorry for the miners to be blunt,” the Colonel confided, “Well set up. Got no chance. Lost before they’d started. Probably a bit of mining blood in me, if you go back far enough. In you too I should imagine. Badly led. Unions. Scargill. Shame for the ordinary working man. Decent types. Seen plenty of their kind in the regiment over the years. Salt of the earth.”
He reminded me that the world was getting colder. Follow the science, he said, we might even be heading for another Ice Age. Coal was a strategic industry, too important to be left to bolshy unions and cack-handed management.
“We are blessed with oil, coal and gas, we should be self-sufficient in energy forever. Needs properly organised and kept safe from interference.”
I began to suspect those sightings of the Colonel to be bogus. I pictured the poor soul stuck in the library for day after day reading broadsheet newspapers and geology books.
“You’re not being paranoid by preparing against a capable enemy.”
He cut to the quick.
“Been to the Soviet Embassy lately have you, Worth?”
“Can’t say I have, sir.”
“Still at school?”
I corrected myself,
“Can’t say I have, Colonel, school or the Soviet Embassy.”
There had been some strange comings and goings.
“Thought that was your kind of thing, Worth? Thought you were in recognisance?”
He reminded me of what we all suspected. There was communication between some trades unions officials and Eastern European embassies who acted as proxies for the Soviet Union. Money moved about. Miners from militant coalfields asked for transfers to moderate coalfields. A pattern emerged. Something was afoot. Trouble was being spread around the country.
“Coordinated industrial warfare in peacetime,” the Colonel noted with a sigh. “Sabotage and full-scale insurrection if big tin things, with red flags painted on them, start rolling west in wartime proper. Not paranoid, sensible precaution against a well organised and disruptive enemy. Don’t mistake me, I don’t blame the rank and file, they’re sheep led by the militants. Might as well call the activists Red Army political commissars. Is that the territory Davies led you into on the train down?”
“Actually it isn’t Colonel, something completely different. Decent of you to tell me all the same.”
The old fox seemed satisfied rather than disappointed. I realised he was two steps ahead of me, allowing him to make the following remark,
“Really? In that case, you owe me double. Come on Worth, your turn, what’s your part in this? Every detail, then we’ll return to what troubled you on the train.”
I told him the Royal and Industrial Insurance Company was a front set up by London to allow for low-level bribery via bogus insurance claims. I’d been bypassing the Official Secrets Act and extracting information from, generally, middle-grade Crown servants and their loved ones.
“Oh, I know that Worth, couldn’t be more bloody obvious. Your interviewees do too, but play the game because they can smell free money. Tell me what you’ve found out, old bean, and why London needs it.”
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file