We are in Battishill Street Gardens, Islington. It is raining. Myself, Natasha Williams and Jakey the borrowed toddler are sat on a bench, sheltered by a tree, next to bushes over-growing a monument.
Natasha had been undercover, in the seedy world of amusement arcades, homeless hostels, runaway teens and those who prey on them. Many of those nefarious types turned out to be sophisticated predators of a certain social class. Under their influence, she has developed Stockholm Syndrome and is now threatening to do a China Syndrome on my pet project, operation Swaling.
“I’m going to wreck it,” she assures me, “There is a cadre of bright young graduates advancing through the professions, committed to social progress, your underhand judgemental gossip column and blackmail orientated repressed Victorian operation Swaling doesn’t help. There is a different society and a different protocol we must progress along. Mrs Thatcher won’t last forever. For God’s sake, Worth, we are in the 20th century. This is 1984, before we’re middle-aged we’ll be living in the 21st century. You’re a fossil.”
When I’d heard, via my pigeon hole at Dolphin Square, Natasha would meet me surreptitiously at Battisford Gardens, I’d done some quick research. First of all, to find where the heck it was and to get there on time. Also, out of curiosity and an innate inability to stop my mind from wandering in interesting directions – a definite competence given the purpose of mine and Natasha’s Government department. Such diversion, therefore, is never wasted. You can never have too many facts. Or so I thought.
“The mural in the corner,” I pointed to the bushes and at the glimpse of granite peeping out between them, “Leftovers from Trafalgar Square, commemorating when the Navy ruled the world. Chiselled by a chap from Sleescale, believe it or not. Set in stone. And did you know Battishill was a notable composer? At a time when lesser races hadn’t yet invented the wheel or ridden a horse. A nearby street is named after General Napier of Peninsular war fame.”
“And Waterloo Terrace,” I nodded to the end of Battishill Road, “which needs no introduction. Why do you want things to change Natasha, why not keep things the way they are? Re-name this place Nelson Mandela Gardens? No thanks. It was better in the old days and the existing Protocol takes us there, makes Britain great again. The 19th century was full of steam engines, mills, mines and entrepreneurs. Pointing our nation in a particular direction isn’t about social change, rather about the nuts and bolts of providing for our people, our own kith and kin, in our own much-envied isle.”
I told her the streets around us had been built on the site of Pitcairn’s nursery. William Pitcairn, the mighty English Victorian botanist and explorer after which the Pitcairn Islands are named.
“You mean, the minute you found out I wanted to meet you again, you rushed to the library and hit the encyclopaedias? Didn’t you wonder how I was coping? Didn’t you think, chocolates? Flowers?” Natasha asked in exasperation.
“This isn’t about you and me. Go to Sleescale, not a bad place, a bit rough and ready in parts but they’re our people. They need jobs, a more efficient mining industry and a safer atom factory. It can be done. At church, the Women’s Union had a banner beside the altar. Mothers and daughters had contributed. Each embroidered one small square to made a tapestry showing the power station and the miners. That’s what provides for people; God, industry, Queen, family, country. That’s what counts. Not this progressive social change nonsense.”
“Life is not about making things and doing stuff, Worth,” she retorted,” It’s about the nature and structure of society. Equality, rights, being entitled to be the person you are without being judged. That’s what will make citizens better people.”
I countered that we’d given plenty of rights away. Observe the colonies. Even Irish nationalists were allowed to vote these days, causing nothing but trouble. I suggested she escaped from Islington and visited my old patch, Northern Ireland, and counted the dead bodies.
“Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile, Natasha. Give them rights and they’ll manipulate the system to harm us. For instance, one man one vote in Ulster. They get themselves elected, are put in charge of something and in no time Johnny taxpayer is paying the IRA to kill him. Grow up, you silly girl.”
She was rambling like a nut, her head turned to suet by her unpleasant experiences at the hands of the duplicitous upper-middle-class metropolitan types who’d been taking advantage of her. A further symptom being,
“Won with the help of the Prussian’s. They should call it Waterloo With Thanks to the Late Intervention of the Prussian Army Terrace.”
I sighed, “Tell your leftie university friends to stop belittling our achievements. Next they’ll be telling you two West Indian regiments and a half squadron of Indian Army elephants won World War Two for us.”
I was making the mistake of trying to reason with her, to counter her confused emotions with rational fact.
“Think about right and wrong, Natasha. The Devil exists as well as God. The person you are is a shaved warrior ape who will do anything to perpetuate its own interest and selfish genes whilst being egged on by Satan.”
She sighed. We occupied two different positions, two cultures in conflict with each other. One might have coined the phrase ‘culture war’, if not outright war. We would have to agree to disagree. At least I was in charge of Swaling and, if push came to shove, could omit Natasha’s misguided, compromised and ill-intentioned contribution.
She startled me with her familiar female ability to read my male mind while driving a sledgehammer into its delicate intertwined cogs,
“I’ve written my own report.”
“My own Swaling.”
“We’re only halfway through, Natasha, and anyway, I’m in charge.”
“I don’t care, Anthony Liden QC helped me, as did his QC wife and their friends. It is impressive, persuasive and ready to submit.”
The Stockholm Syndrome-o-meter needle was beyond the red zone and smashing a hole in the glass.
“You can’t write your own report.”
“I already have. Think of a split decision in a boxing match.”
I reminded her we were only partway through, I hadn’t been to Tangiers yet and when I did our American colleague’s nighttime high tech recognisance elitist creep capturing kit would change the game.
“There’s no need,” She responded, “You’re wasting your time. Your pervy sneaking about looking through windows, be they backbenchers at Dolphin Square or resting nobodies in Tangiers, is a nonsense. When you read my report you’ll understand. So will the high-ups. It may take a while but time is on my side. Society can only progress in one direction.”
“Go on,” I said. “Show me now.”
“Follow me,” she replied after the slightest hesitation.
We set off with Jakey, the two of us hunched against the rain while he remained asleep and oblivious to the culture war raging beyond his rain cover.
En route, Natasha led me to the A1 and headed northwards back towards Highbury and Islington Station, where I’d arrived from Dolphin Square via the Victoria Line line earlier in the morning.
We stopped outside Islington Town Hall, a neoclassical building two tall high stories built of gleaming Portland stone.
“The local Member of Parliament is on my side,” Natasha informed me. “As are the council and council leader. I went to the police.”
She recounted another sorry tale. She had approached a police officer, hoping to remain undercover while escaping from the phoney of Order of St Clifford’s dangerous hostels. A bedsit would have been better, if only for a week or two. But the police had taken her to the town hall’s social services who in turn took her straight back into the groping arms of Bishop Malcolm and Father Peter. Passing through the system, Natasha had realised those charged with protecting the young were also the low life visiting the hostels to abuse them.
“Evil,” I told her. “Use my Swaling to thin them out, either by prosecuting them or humiliating them in public, or better still, both.”
“Wrong. Bad choices,” She contradicted me. “Use social constructs within a progressive society to provide more positive outlets. My Swaling. You’ll see.”
We set off again, making small talk as we walked. At times I caught sight of the three of us in passing shop windows. Man, woman and child as if a family. It had its attractions. I felt a pang. I wondered if passers-by thought us a couple with their own youngster? I hoped they did.
If Natasha was thinking the same, she didn’t let it show.
“Are you sure William Pitcairn was a famous explorer?”
“Absolutely. Why do you think they’re called the Pitcairn Islands?”
“There’ll have been than one Pitcairn, Worth, and more than one Napier, upon reflection. The education system needs to change,” She concluded. “One of my recommendations. Fewer facts and more empathy.”
I shook my head in dismay and as I did so Natasha drew me to a halt beside an apartment block. After she’d fiddled with her keys and opened the front door, I was able to bounce Jakey up some steps and into the building. As I did so, I woke him. His little arms stretched and two unknowing plaintiff eyes examined me and began to fill with tears.
To be continued ….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file