Back in London, I struggled to touch base with my colleague, Miss Natasha Williams, the other half of my nascent Operation Swaling, neglected by myself as I was sent north to play my part in the miner’s strike.
My contact with the capital in between times had been brief and intermittent. Three hundred miles away, from a urine-soaked night-time Sleescale phone box, the claimants for our fake Royal and Industrial Insurance Company had been administered to me to begin the skewering of wet Tory plotter Major Sir Fergus McGee MC MP. Added to that, a snotty was dragged out of bed at 2 am and told to instruct X branch to force my own Dolphin Square apartment door. A log had to be retrieved from under my pillow (I never did work out how to use the safe) and read out down the line to expose the seedy observed comings and goings needed to assure the cooperation of the said Sir Fergus.
Apart from that, zilch.
For the duration, Natasha hadn’t been answering her phone. After my return, she wasn’t coming to her door either or replying to the notes stuck under it via Sydney the draft excluding python’s tummy.
It was pointless asking around in our department. Regarding operations, none of us were supposed to know what any of the others were up to. I hesitated before taking the matter upstairs. I had two immediate superiors and then a Minister. An approach to his oak-lined ministerial office near Carlton Gardens would constitute not so much the nuclear option, more a doomsday Apocalypse resulting in the end of time. The downside of our department’s peculiarly shallow hierarchy of command was both of my bosses were ‘handsy’ with the more junior officers, making them difficult to cultivate without a risk of being violated.
“Love to old bean, my door’s always open. Dash, will have to be after hours? My place and an opportunity for a few drinks for the duration? Best I can do and sounds so important.”
A prelude to being chased around a first-floor reception room, Barbara Windsor and Sid James style, until the red phone rang and England needed a sombre high-up with his pants still around his waist. Creep out of the townhouse on tiptoes and sprint through the mews back to Dolphin Square. No thanks. Been there, done that, poured a superior Burgundy over my boss’s crotch more than once. Never again.
I sat in my room, on a corner facing outwards, missing Natasha and her studio’s more informative view of the quadrangle. In the darkness, all I could see was an empty secondary school and half a dozen uninteresting back windows belonging to the well-behaved residents of St George’s Square. Fun spoilt. Not a lot of material available from this vantage point with which to Swale the deviant upper classes.
Brainwave. I would put a note in Miss Williams’ pigeonhole, behind the reception desk at the entrance to her block. I kept the message simple.
“We must talk, A.W-S.”
With indecent haste, a reply appeared in mine. Opened in trepidation I read,
“Battishill Gardens, tomorrow 10 am, alone.”
Battishill Street lies in Islington, on the Victoria line direct from Pimlico. If the name were to go down in infamy, it would be for no greater reason than having been chosen by a girl called Natasha to make sure a chap called Worth was unlikely to lose himself en route. It being reachable in one tube hop from the station nearest to Dolphin Square.
Alighting at Highbury and Islington Underground Station, I wandered south beside the A1, past shops and three-story high flat-roofed buildings in what was becoming a fashionable part of London now the Thatcher economic miracle was underway. Apart from the weather, my surroundings couldn’t have been more different from Sleescale. More than a quarter of a mile’s walk would take me to Battishill (in pelting rain), although the street was accessed from a side street. None of which I’d known at that time the previous day. After finding Natasha’s note, I’d requisitioned an A to Z and pulled a file from the repository at impressive speed to be able to show off when given the chance.
What was annoying was the side street had more than one name. Ordinarily insignificant, in the heightened stimulus of a secret rendezvous, this played on my mind. I would use a landmark instead. I was on the lookout for a narrow street opposite a filling station.
Partway between there and here, I spotted Natasha, unrecognisable in a recognisable sort of way. Rather slouched, her body language was deflated by the rain and disguised further by the unexpected. She was pushing a pushchair. I was certain it was her. Although I couldn’t get on with her, and we didn’t like each other, there was something about the slightest glance of her that always made me jolt in anticipation.
Her movements were so deliberate and precise she seemed to be leading me on like a hen nesting bird dropping a wing to lure the old farm cat away from a brood. Suspicious, I lingered, allowing her to slip ahead until out of view.
I doubled back, looking to see if I was being followed. I pretended to tie a shoelace. I studied the reflections in a shop window.
Reassured, I resumed the route, found the filling station and made for the lane opposite, a cobbled terrace, narrow, Victorian and named after Waterloo. Partway along, Battishill Street branched to the left. As its Georgian terrace didn’t begin until halfway to the next road, space was allowed for Battisford Street Gardens.
Modest to the point of embarrassment when compared to the garden squares of Russel and Brunswick in neighbouring Bloomsbury, this benefited from being enclosed, off the beaten path and discreet.
Black railings, partly overwhelmed by privet hedge separated the gardens from the pavement. Gates sat in each corner, guarded by ornamental lampposts. A lambda shaped path connected them, along which sat on a bench under a tree, was the figure of Natasha Williams next to a parked pushchair.
Sat to one side, she awaited my arrival by allowing a space for me. The weather was wet, teeming down and cold. We sat side by side in silence, Natasha leaning forward, holding damp handles to rock a bundle back and forwards under a rain cover. A head drooped to the left, oblivious to all.
Neither of us spoke. Natasha wasn’t dishevelled. She was still managing the regulation daily wash followed by minimal makeup, shiny shoes and pressed clothes, but not much else. She appeared lean, drawn, her cheekbones prominent, the orbits of her eyes beginning to sink. I thought I noticed a grey hair or twenty.
She checked her watch, more than once, suggesting she had somewhere else to go and something else to do. Taking a small wrapped bundle from the bottom of the pushchair, she placed it on the bench between us.
I ended the silence, “Doll on top of a bomb. You can take the boy out of Ulster but you can’t take Ulster out of the boy. Doesn’t have to end like this, does it, Nash?”
She moved the pushchair around revealing a little boy fast asleep.
“He has a name,” she began, “Jakey.”
“Jakey begged, stolen, borrowed or yours?” I asked.
“Never you mind.”
She tapped the package lying between us.
“Think of that as a goodbye forever present. Thank you for keeping away from my rooms, not. And for keeping away from me, not,” she said returning both hands to rocking the boy.
I opened the package which I found to be stuffed with money, high denomination used notes with Pounds at the front and Dollars at the back. I wasted no time in trousering them.
“Natasha, we haven’t started let alone finished. I need the input from your half of Swaling. My half hasn’t started yet.”
“I’m done with Swaling, thank you. Have you any idea what you threw me into?”
I did now, but I hadn’t a few weeks ago when tasking her to the London end of the operation while I was seconded north. All of my worst fears, and a few more, had been confirmed and added to by Captain Davies. On the train trip to Sleescale he boasted of what he’d overhead VIPs personal protection officers and drivers report when indiscreet, in despair, furious, drunk or all four. What little Swaling intel I’d amassed at Dolphin Square had come in handy, as proved by the eventual confidence Sir Fergus McDee expressed as required in Mrs Thatcher. I’d thought we were off to an excellent start but my mood was dampening. Natasha’s demeanour was pouring a bucket of cold puke on my ten o’clocks.
“I think I spotted you at Euston Station the day I left London,” I told her, trying to sound empathetic. “In role, a young runaway, new to the city. You were approached by a policewoman and then by a man. I thought it was you but wasn’t inclined to do much. After all, that was the whole point of Swaling. Infiltrate this unpleasant trade from the inside and report with a view to thinning it out. Tell me what happened. Natasha? Go on.”
A long pause followed.
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file