In the Sleescale constituency office of Major Sir Fergus McDee MP, I have read out from my Royal and Industrial Insurance Company notebook a list of names inscribed on a nearby mining tragedy memorial. I am trying to ease Sir Fergus, not too subtly, away from being a nappy filling wet Tory likely to support former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when he rises in the House of Lords and gives a ‘Finest men in the world’ speech. This speech is to be in support of the striking miners and in defiance of a secret protocol designed to cure the country of all ills. Ills including bolshy unions, inefficient and dangerous industries and wet Tories.
I turn a page and began to read from another list.
Thomas Armitage, aged forty-six.
Malcolm Powell, aged fifty-seven.
Edward Symons, aged sixty-six.
George Markham, aged forty-one.
These were the names of servicemen who, in my investigatory disguise as an insurance assessor, were suspected of having been taken ill because of British atom bomb tests in the Pacific. At the time, Sir Fergus was a junior defence minister responsible for such things.
I reminded the MP he was upon, “The cusp of scandal,” and, “These things can be dealt with in a particular way, including or not including mention of the politicians responsible at the time.”
He is no fool, I was certain he would take the hint.
But he remained silent, his expression whimsical rather than concerned. He was leaning against a window, looking down on me, arms folded, while I sat on the guest’s side of his desk. My colleague, Captain Davies, sat beside me with, worryingly, arms folded mimicking the body language of the former tank commander turned Member of Parliament.
I turned a page in my notebook to another list of names, fewer of which reminded one of the kings and queens of England. Some were named after pop stars and footballers, beginning with,
Greorgie Cooper, aged eleven.
Bowie James, aged eight.
Tracy Cartwright, aged fifteen.
These were Sleecasle children whose parent thought had been made ill by the proximity of an atom plant. Or whose parents worked at the plant and were thought to have brought something into the home, maybe some kind of radioactive contamination, which sickened the children.
It was a long list that Sir Fergus allowed me to finish.
“Worth, even if this is true and it can in some way be used against a sitting MP or former junior minister, and I’m sure you would not think of such a thing, this doesn’t help the argument for replacing coal with nuclear power. Upon brief reflection, your theatrics don’t do the reputation of the nuclear deterrent any favours either. You and I are both aware that such undermining of Government policy runs contrary to a Protocol the three of us in this room are sworn to implement.”
“These things can be presented in a particular way, Sir Fergus,” I replied. “I don’t enjoy saying this, but mistakes can be presented as if made by an individual rather than being technical, political or strategic. Individual mistakes that may end a career.”
Unflustered, Sir Fergus had noted a flaw in my argument, one allowing him an escape route.
“I don’t think so, Worth. They’d be a complete media feeding frenzy. The whole thing would run out of control, damaging the deterrent, damaging the nuclear power option. Press barons would love it. Sick children, sick veterans. Every stone would be upturned and all the creepy crawlies would be on view, not just the juicy one you want to stamp on.”
“You don’t think the press are on your side, do you? No matter what they’ve told you, they’re on their own side. A small favour for a small person in a London department, too big for his own boots? Or millions of extra Fleet Street rag sales? I’m certain which they’ll choose. Out of your depth, Worth. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t call your bluff?”
Davies remained immobile. Face set in stone he was waiting to find who would win the argument before taking sides. As he ordinarily stood at the bloody infantry end of national self-interest, more often than not up to his knees in guts, I couldn’t say I blamed him.
I would have preferred Sir Fergus to have buckled over dangerous pits, sick veterans and poorly children but I admired his swiftness of thought. No matter, I had had longer than he to ponder. Lying on my bed in Davis’ and myself’s shared upstairs room, looking at a damp ceiling on long cold cold Sleescale nights, had summoned my inner Bruce watching the spider and Bunyan looking through a captive’s window. Sir Fergus’ escape route was booby-trapped.
I prepared to deliver the coup de gras while turning another page in my notebook. Short of names, I began to read out a list of places, dates and times.
“Shackleton House, room 412, 11:30 pm to 3 am. Those are your lodgings, aren’t they? At Dolphin Square? When you’re in London? When the House is sitting? Little people like me have corner suites and can observe two roads at once. A colleague’s room faces into the quadrangle. There are photographs. All the comings and goings with a mere two scouts. All the creepy crawlies in and out from under their stone. Likely to cause an unstoppable feeding frenzy in the media, I’m told.”
I read some more of my list.
“4th of the month, 01:30 am accompanied by a youth.”
“8th of the month, 11:45 pm, accompanied by a youth.”
I took my eyes away from my notebook and glanced at Sir Fergus. Still appearing to be unconcerned, he said,
“You can assure the Prime Minister she continues to have my full support.”
I took this as his capitulation. He changed the subject, sort of.
Completely un-ashamedly he announced, “I also support a children’s home nearby, Somerton Hall, at the other end of the valley. Could do with a few extra pairs of hands, and the boys could do with role models, father figures, big brothers. You two up for it? Bit of voluntary work always looks excellent on a CV.”
My jaw dropped.
“Absolutely, sir,” replied Davies, “Love to. Could build a canoe with them, built them before. Mountain tarns around about to try it out on, in among a bit of camping. Ideal.”
My jaw dropped further.
“Worth?” asked Sir Fergus as if his recent skewering had never happened.
“No,” I replied, “Obviously not. Not my kind of thing. How on earth do you ….,” before I had a chance to add, “Get away with that,” he interrupted with, “It’s not all hard work, Worth. Time for partying too. You’d have a great time.”
Speechless, all I could say was, “No.”
Davies ended a resulting awkward silence in his usual direct style,
“What Worth means is, he’d love to, but he’s back to London tomorrow. Off to his books and twitching curtains. Boxes ticked. Job done.”
Later, in our respective beds in our grotty room above the corner shop, I broached the subject with Davies.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because of what you told me the first day I met you, on the train heading up here. About what drivers and personal protection officers get to see. A network of establishment types with an unnatural and cruel interest in the young. Some of whom are horribly harmed. By the measure of things, at the least, Sir Fergus is on the fringe of it, if not implicated up to the top of his tank regiment cap badge. Why on earth would you go to a children’s home with him?”
“I’m not going there for that, am I?” He replied almost mockingly,” I’m going to build a canoe with waifs and strays, take them yomping through the hills and teach them a bit of fieldcraft. Sir Fergus will write me a glowing reference for my CV and help with my elite forces selection. He can’t exactly refuse can he, after what you were kind enough to reveal about him. And by the way, he didn’t exactly collapse in shock at the revelations. For a wet, he didn’t quite burst into tears of shame and surprise.”
That had struck me too. Sir Fergus had been far too familiar with the process for my liking. On returning to London I’d check through his affiliations, his voting record and his Parliament committee memberships. I’d leaf through Hansard finding what questions he’d asked and on whose behalf. I’d bet a farthing to a Guinea, McDee was being heartily blackmailed by another or others.
“And stop trying to purge the world of evil with your books and binoculars, Worth. Enjoy yourself. Let your hair down. Leave it to the grown-ups. There’ll be a corner the Protocol where the Lord High Executioner finishes off the likes of Sir Fergus McDee and blames the bang and the splat on the IRA. Leave them to it. They know what they’re doing.”
The sermon having ended, I rolled over to sleep wary all this talk of grown-ups obliged me to find Natasha Williams, and rescue her from what I feared I’d accidentally endangered her into before I’d headed north.
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file