Myself and Davies are sat in the local MPs surgery waiting room in Sleescale. In one of the better parts of the town, outside are cobbled streets where old gas lights stand redundant next to tall electric lamposts. Low walls topped with stubs where railings had been taken out and melted to make Spitfires during the war, were lined beside an impressive terrace of townhouses. The Victorian dwellings surround a once private garden, again without railings, within which a row of shabby figures sat on a bench drinking spirits from bottles concealed in plain, torn brown paper bags.
Number 35 contained the Conservative Party’s constituency offices. Davies assured me, half-jokingly, upstairs is the coding room and downstairs is the bunker, as Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, after five years in office, finally gets its act together and learns from necessity how to run the country. Taking it back from “lefties, commies, hippies, layabouts and trades union types,” he assures me in too loud a voice.
Other needy constituents glance towards us. An MP’s usual fare, a lady who objects to the dog licence, a gentleman whose colour TV doesn’t work, a young woman who wants to change the world.
I whisper a confidence to Davies, one of the more harmless rumours which passed around my department when I was still in London.
“The Foreign Secretary had a constituent with a squeaky settee. From the day she bought it, squeak, squeak, squeak, while she was sitting on it. No pleasure from the shop or the factory, so she took the matter to her constituency MP, who happened to be the Foreign Secretary. At a surgery like this, I suppose. Tormented the poor soul. Every time he had a surgery she would be there, and she’d be going on and on about the damned noisy sofa. Cost her a hundred and twenty guineas. He ended up dreading the whole thing. In between times, he was negotiating at NATO, avoiding world wars, recapturing distant islands from foreign powers. Took it all in his stride but wobbled like a jelly when he had to face Mrs Woman and her squeak in his office once a fortnight.”
“In the end, something like the International Independent Brotherhood of Soft-furnishing Assessors, the consultants of last resort, sent an expert whose word would be final. Cost her a non-refundable £10. Foreign Secretary was shaking like a leaf and moved heaven and earth, and a few backsides at MI5, to make sure the furniture chap reported to him first. Forewarned is forearmed sort of thing. Strange world we live in.”
Davies had his own anecdote. Top-notch mess night banter with a Ministry of Defence Personal Private Secretary (or some such) confiding far too much after drinking half a gallon of ale out of one of Napoleon’s drums while wearing one of Rommel’s captured hats.
“His minister had an ordinary couple sat before him mumbling about struggling to start a family. Can you help my wife to become pregnant was the accidental punchline. Minister had the sense to referrer them to some kind of clinic, thank God.”
We both mused for a moment upon those strange things called ‘people’ and the stranger beast called ‘democracy’ before Davies noted,
“I hope you’re not going to try anything like that with Sleescale’s finest, Major Sir Fergus McDee MC MP, and I hope I’m not playing the gooseberry.”
“Wait and all will be revealed, Captain. Watch and learn,” I replied smugly.
When our turn came, I introduced myself as Mr Worth, before my hesitant gooseberry introduced himself as ‘Davies’. There was no need to mention regiment or rank, the two military men weighed each other up in an instant.
Also sat in the MP’s private office was a horn rim bespectacled spinster called Sophia, armed with a pen and notepad.
Corpulent and filling a business suit, Sir Fergus formed an appropriate four-cornered arrangement with photographs on desk and wall of, respectively, Mrs Thatcher, the Queen and a tank. His first-ever election campaign had consisted of one poster in the market square proclaiming, “Vote Major McDee MC”. Being a major, having been awarded the Military Cross and being a McDee, a well respected landed local family, was sufficient to be elected to the House and subsequently re-elected for the next four decades. I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not at all cynical of the upper orders. A suspicion of some aristocracy hovers over myself, although several times removed and with the bulk of the land long gone. But every now and again, like the most obedient of dogs, they have to be called to heel, or like the best behaved of children, they have to be smacked.
We shook hands. A ‘look them straight in the eye’ moment was followed by an exchange of small talk about the unseasonable cold weather. McDee sat us down and asked in a workmanlike manner,
“What’s to do?”
I would do all the talking, Davies was there for the purpose of outnumbering. Not that you would expect weight of numbers to trouble a man like McDee but it was part of the procedure.
“You’re not going to try to sell me something are you?” He laughed nodding towards my Royal and Industrial Insurance Company name badge.
“Yes and no,” I assured him.
“My superiors and your superiors have sent me all the way up to Sleecasle to do a bit of research, Sir Fergus”. The mention of ‘your superiors’ changed his body language. Not a slouch to start with, he sat up even straighter, as if artillery fire was within earshot and a whiff of cordite was upon the breeze. He put his elbows on the desk and linked his hands. His stare became more intense. In a straightforward argument, he would make mincemeat of me, but the last part of the battlefield that my London department ever tried to occupy was ‘straightforward’.
“I’ve been busy in Sleescale library and out and about talking to the locals as if an insurance assessor.”
Sir Fergus instructed his lady assistant to stop making notes.
“While keeping in touch with London every day by phone, albeit from a call box that doubles as a public lavatory, and listening to the national television news and reading the broadsheet newspapers, I must say a bit of a thingy has cropped up which you might want to insure yourself against.”
“Are you threatening me, Mr Worth?”
“Yes. Miner’s strike wobbles on the Tory benches is unhelpful. Our chaps and girls, in and out of uniform, are putting their lives on the line on picket lines while yourself and others, from the safety of the green benches in Westminster, fill your nappies and complain to nanny.”
“As we are entitled to. Now, hold on a minute, Worth.”
“No, you hold on, Sir Fergus, and keep your eye on the protocol. Don’t pretend to be surprised, you understand full well what I mean.”
Sir Fergus, now changing colour, asked Miss Sophia to allow us a few moments in private. As soon as the door closed behind her, the mood in the room changed. Perhaps surprisingly, the atmosphere became more relaxed.
Sir Fergus asked us if we’d like anything to drink, not tea or coffee, something well north of zero percent proof.
“Bit early in the day, sir,” I responded.
“Nothing for me, Major,” said Davies, adding in explanation, “preparing for Zed course in six weeks.”
“Ah,” the other military man commented, aware of what that meant, “did it in ’43. Failed everything. They put me in a tank. Was the making of me as it turned out.”
“The sun’s bound to be over the yardarm somewhere Worth,” he continued, “sure I can’t tempt you?”
He addressed a cupboard door that revealed a concealed drinks cabinet. Mirrored on the inside, it was bedecked with some rather impressive glasses and even more impressive malts. However, I prefered a vodka.
“A Pskov Oblast squire’s measure?” Asked the MP.
Not at that time of the day.
“A quarter glass please, Sir. Imagine me a nervous Pskovsky Contessa needing fortification before a ballet exam.”
“Only ever heard that phrase once before, Worth. In a dining car in soft class on an overnight express to Kaliningrad, many years ago.”
I tapped my nose. He raised an eyebrow.
Refreshed, he eschewed chair and desk and stood leaning against the window, his hands spread out behind him on the sill, like a late-middle-aged male Spirit of Ecstacy in a suit.
“What’s all this about then Worth and Davies? And if the likes of you two have been indoctrinated into the Protocol then times are either more desperate than I thought or standards have dropped.”
“Bit of both I suspect, sir. And it’s about an old friend and former colleague of yours,” I said confidently. “A chap who used to run the country.”
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file