Myself, Natasha Williams and a borrowed pushchair bound toddler called Jakey are on a bench in a rain-soaked Battishill Road Gardens in London’s Islington. We are disguised as a young family while having a secret conflab about Natasha’s part in my operation Swaling. I had left her behind in London while I’d been up the North on miner’s strike business. I’d encouraged her to disguise herself as a male, look younger than she really was and hover around places she was likely to be picked up by upper-class gentlemen (of a certain persuasion) the county might benefit from seeing swaled. She reports having had a torrid time, and no longer wants to be any part of the operation, a terrible blow as her input and continued cooperation is required.
She wanted to talk about money after handing me a sizable sum in a bulging plain envelope containing high denomination notes, which I had pocketed promptly. She rocked the sleeping Jakey slowly back and forwards in the drizzle.
“How much are you paid?”
“Same as you,” I replied before correcting myself. “Slightly more than you because I’m a man. £225 a week, about right for London, plus I live rent-free in Dolphin Square and claim a daily subsistence. Shouldn’t complain.”
“What I’ve just given you is your half.”
“Half?” I replied surprised, “there was a lot of it.”
“Half of what was left over after I’d spent most of it on myself. I needed cheering up.”
“Jesus, Natasha, what have you been up to?”
“Do you have a limit, Worth? A limit to what you’ll do? You sell intelligence to the newspapers don’t you?”
She was correct. Fleet Street paid me for stories and I even co-authored a weekly Beau Peeper scandal column for a Daily Redtop. As for Ulster, one or two wheels had to be oiled by looking the other way and a suitable cut made a difference. Some of what we did had to do be off the books, and if a little fund accumulated it could be put to good use. I had a bank account in tax-efficient Jersey for a rainy day. I was sure Natasha did likewise and was puzzled as to why she was uncharacteristically palming bundles of cash onto me. Perhaps I might find out by sitting as quietly and innocently as Jakey and allowing her to tell me her story?
As instructed, Natasha had donned a boyish disguise as only a woman can, pinning up her hair and wearing figure disguising clothes, before making her way to Euston Station. She sat on a concourse bench next to a pillar, advertising herself as a new arrival to the capital. Sure enough, she was approached, but by a policewoman who leant over her reproachfully and interrogated her with the obvious questions.
“Are you travelling anywhere, love?”
“What are you doing here then?”
“Somebody coming to meet you, son?”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your address?”
As Natasha parried the questions she became Nash, a lad from North Wales who lived on a St David’s Road in an unpronounceable town somewhere between Wrexham and Llandudno in a high numbered house suggestive of a council estate’s long avenue. Nash was waiting for a cousin to arrive through the rush hour traffic and take him to his aunt’s house somewhere in South London. Nash couldn’t remember the name of the street.
As soon as the police officer had gone. Natasha was approached again. This time by a man in his twenties who introduced himself as Father Peter from the St Clifford’s Centre. A similar interrogation followed but one accompanied by smiles and nods and culminating with,
“Looking for somewhere to stay? Chat about it over a coffee?”
Natasha followed Father Peter outside where, as soon as he was likely out of view of the transport police, he put on an official-looking Order of St Clifford cap.
Coffee was taken in the breakfast room basement of a cheap hotel on the corner of a nearby Georgian townhouse terrace. Industrial tasting coffee was served from an industrial-sized metal pot, accompanied by as much toast as could be eaten. The girls waiting at table were lean, sallow-skinned and knew no English. The proprietor was on first name terms with Farther Peter and subsequently made no attempt to present a bill, as if his presence was reciprocal. Father Peter explained the situation.
“You don’t need any money, Nash. The Bishop sees to all of that. He’ll sign you onto Social Security. It pays your rent. You can earn pennies in the kitchen or helping with the chores. You can earn proper money in a job. A proper job, not a mug’s job. You’re in London now. The streets are paved with gold. If you let people help you.”
He winked at what he thought was a vulnerable boy.
“For a few weeks to get you on your feet, after which you’ll be wanting to move on. St Clifford’s can start you in your new life. Help you make new friends. There are lots of boys like yourself to meet. You’ll have a great time. Do you know what an Earl is? One of our patrons is an Earl. He has a country estate in Berkshire. Berkshire’s nearby. He takes St Clifford’s boys there for weekends, in his Jaguar. Best of everything. Have you ever ridden a horse, Nash? Or fired a shotgun? Whatever you desire. You’ll have a brilliant time until you’re settled down and standing on your own two feet, then you’ll be wanting to move on.”
“OK,” whispered Natasha, looking over a cleaned plate and emptied coffee mug for a flight of stairs or an elevator to this new life.
“Oh, this isn’t it,” anticipated Peter, “this place is for dossers. My car’s around the corner. It’s a ten-minute drive, depending on the traffic, don’t panic if it takes an hour.”
They drove to South London to a run-down detached house with bars on its downstairs windows. Natasha was introduced to the Bishop. Bishop Malcolm of the Order of St Clifford, who was dressed in an Army Surplus Store jumper finished in twenty pence badges bought from a box, one of which read ‘social worker’.
In a brisk and workmanlike style, the Bishop started a guided tour of the premises, barking house rules as he did so. The kitchen and shared washing/toilet faculties (with no locks on the doors), were on the ground floor. From there Natasha was directed upstairs to rooms of bunk beds, one of which was allocated to her that very minute. At first appearances, her new roommates weren’t all graduates from the school of hard knocks. It wouldn’t be too difficult for her to merge into the company. More than one of the other residents, despite their obvious initial disadvantage, seemed as feminine as she was.
Through the day the boys lounged in their bunks boasting of small tricks and big money before being turfed out of the house at nightfall under the pretence of Bishop Malcolm and Father Peter having to ‘service’ their rooms. Natasha followed the small crowd of St Cliffordians which strung out through the streets of Brixton heading towards the Northern Line. Within the half-hour, she was beneath the bright lights of Picadilly Circus, leaning on roadside railings beside a boy called Gary.
“Do you want to go back to your home already?” he asked in a soft voice emanating from beneath a massive mop of floppy hair.
“I don’t have a home. My step-father put me out. Disowned me. Got fed up with me. Father Peter found me at Victoria Coach Station. This is boring, it’s quiet here tonight. Let’s go to the arcade.”
Sure enough, playing the slots, Natasha was approached by a man who introduced himself with nothing beyond, “Fancy a coffee?”
“Yes, but I have my limits,” she replied.
A car and driver waited a discreet distance away. She was driven to a mews property in an exclusive part of South Kensington. Up a flight of stairs lay a pleasant living room decorated with family photographs and framed certificates of academic and legal qualifications. A flattering portrait of a plain wife hung above the fireplace.
“We won’t be interrupted,” Natasha’s companion assured her. “It’s
pro bono night in Chambers, something to do with human rights
that always lasts until two in the morning.”
What happened between them happened between them, within Natasha’s limits and without the risk of her alias as a runaway boy from North Wales called ‘Nash’ from being compromised. She was given a large sum of money and it was suggested to her that these meetings could become regular.
The driver returned her to a discreet street corner close to the Leicester Square amusement arcade where she’d been picked up, allowing for the process to be repeated.
“There was a name on a Bar Council award,” Natasha confided to me on that rainy day at Battishill Road Gardens. “Above a photo of two little children. A name that is going to destroy your beloved protocol. I want you to memorise it.”
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file