It is nineteen eighty-four. If Big Brother is watching he will observe myself, my colleague Natasha Williams and a disguise enhancing borrowed toddler (called Jakey) in a pushchair hunkered on a bench beneath a tree. We are in Battishill Road Gardens Islington, finding as much shelter as can be expected on a cold and drizzly North London day.
Some points about Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth. I can vouch such a thing exists, but not in the form of a five hundred story high Air Strip One edifice towering above the slums of Orwell’s visionary book. Imagine a preached ministry delivered by your elders and betters as they harangue from the contemporary pulpits of screen and newsprint. That being ministered is a nation saving Protocol, a template solving the country’s ills. In detail known only to the governing class, a select number of captains of industry, media barons and senior officers at the Old Testament end of the Chief Constable spectrum. Crown servant underlings like myself and Natasha had been able to piece it together as best we could from crumbs cast towards us from high tables.
A final point about the Ministry of Truth. I had thought I was an employee, but after listening to my drawn and pale colleague’s recent experiences I was no longer so convinced.
After a successful stint up the North, frustrating the miner’s ongoing strike, and beating wobbling wet Tory backbenchers back into line, I have touched base with Natasha and what she has told me thus far has unsettled my confidence.
I bore her with my own story, trying to reassure myself as well as herself in its telling.
“Near Sleescale, the railway line to London runs next to a colliery. It was working, I’m certain. The wheels at the pit head were spinning. Coal was everywhere, piled high in mountains.”
“Opencast mines lie along the coast. The men are in a different union and are still working. No love lost between them. The miners call the opencast men construction workers not colliers. Out on the hills one day with Captain Davies, my running buddy, we came across a private mine. A drift disappearing into the hillside in the middle of nowhere. If they extract less than so many tons a year they don’t have to recognise the union or be part of the National Coal Board. They’re not even obliged to put a fence up. We chatted to the miners while we were having a breather and they were having their bait. Working full pelt. Proper capitalists, conservative people, with a small ‘c’ .”
What I was trying to explain to Natasha, as she rocked a sleeping Jakey back and forward, speeding up the beads of wet running across his pushchair cover, was that we couldn’t lose. Partway through the project, we’d already won.
“Chin up, girl. No more talk of giving up. I need you to write up your experiences and add them to mine. Prove the conclusions I’ve decided upon, and include them with what I’m going to find out when Swaling moves to Tangiers where the upper classes do their sinning in the summer. We’re going to do to the toffs who hold our country back what’s being done to the miners. Slam dunk. Home run. We can’t lose.”
“Have you any idea what you put me through?” She asked.
I wanted to hug her, or at least put an arm around her, but daren’t. Our feelings for each other were complicated and contradictory. She despised me but wanted my approval. I was fond of her but didn’t like her. We sat close together but far apart, Jakey in front of us oblivious to the childlike emotions of the grown-ups.
While I’d been away, as planned Natasha had disguised herself as a homeless boy called ‘Nash’ and had been picked up, as if a runaway, at Euston Station. A phoney controlling charitable religious order calling itself the ‘Order of St Clifford’ had taken her to one of its South London slum clearance hostel squats. After dark, she and the other helpless residents were encouraged to notorious meat rack picking up joints in Leicester Square and its neighbouring amusement arcades.
“After a few days they found out I’m female,” she said.
“Bath night?” Was the first thing that entered my head and I made the mistake of saying it aloud.
She swore at me and added, “No, when I was sexually assaulted.”
Bishop Malcolm of the Order of St Clifford, in his homemade clerical RAF surplus jumper vestments and accompanied by different strangers on different nights, was in the habit of creeping into the boy’s bunk bed dorm when they were supposed to be sleeping. Forewarned, Natasha turned her head to the wall and tried to ignore yet another victim’s discomfort. She reported being unsettled at how easy it had been and how straightforward was the next morning’s pretence of nothing having happened. Then, one night, her turn had come.
“Don’t worry,” she sniped in sarcasm. “The fumbling was brief and they didn’t see anything you haven’t seen. The bishop and his acolyte soon lost interest. And, in case you want to know, yes there is a market for such things. Girls dressed as boys dressed as boys dressed as girls. Just a different clientele.”
Not the first time for such things either. No one had been shocked. Nash became Natasha again with unembarrassed indecent haste, was moved to a new hostel and encouraged to a different shelf on the meat rack, this one closer to Theatreland than the arcades.
“I had a black eye, Natasha, and some teeth knocked out. Scuffling on the picket lines, kicking off a riot for the evening news,” I reassured her bearing my teeth and pushing a fingertip into a gap.
She glanced at me and damned me by whispering, “Not quite the same.”
Thin to start with and with my own Celtic high cheekbones, the orbits of her blue eyes were now sunken into her head. New lines had appeared around the sides of her mouth. The last couple of months had wearied her if not defeated her altogether.
“I kept on visiting the lawyer at his mews,” she continued, “you’ve forgotten his name, haven’t you?”
“No I haven’t, Anthony Linden, you could read it from one of the legal certificates hanging on the wall, you said.”
“Remember the name.”
“For the Beau Peeper gossip column,” I concluded. “And the public humiliation and the court case and a bit of blackmail. Absolutely. Hope he ends up being famous and powerful, or even running the country, we’ll have him by the testicles. Metaphorically this time.”
Natasha sighed, “A cadre of able young lawyers is coming through the system. Public school, but not the top ones. That would be a bit too obvious. Parents not from the elite, but from the next tier down. Second shelf, below the radar, just. Ambitious, able, driven. Left-wing. Progressive. QC material, becoming judges and then lawmakers. Oxford types, a conveyor belt of law schools and chambers, politically motivated. Frighteningly politically motivated. I’d call this out as infiltration. Worth, do you want to pick a fight with the working classes on a picket line, or with the full force of carefully crafted laws, vigorously applied?”
I’d lost track of what she was on about.
“This doesn’t sound like the Protocol to me,” I answered, “outside of which not much matters to our careers. Progressive? What does progressive mean?”
“The primary objective of society is to progress in a particular direction,” she replied in resignation.
“Sounds like Marxism, Natasha. The science of history. They have messed your head up. Are you getting any kind of counselling? An Irish chap from an attic room in N Branch does such things pro bono. Can’t recommend him, but we’re all different.”
My free counselling had involved being asked, “Tell me about your childhood,” and “Who were your Mum and Dad?” while all I wanted to talk about was the flashbacks and sleepless nights having been, on more than one occasion, in my civvies surrounded and terrified on the streets of Belfast. Silly man.
“The Protocol won’t last forever,” Natasha said.
“Yes, it will. It can’t be altered. It’s been worked out scientifically by top boffins. Efficiency. Economies of scale, mass production. Free markets, democracy and the rule of law. It’s on a giant schematic somewhere. Some say on a drill hall floor, or in a nuclear bunker or along a big wall in Number 10, Downing Street. It’s set in stone. Scientific, rational. That’s why it’s working.”
“It’s not working,” Natasha looked at me again through the same drawn features but this time accompanied by tear-filled eyes. “Everybody’s miserable and pissed off. People aren’t rational, Worth. Stand in an amusement arcade pretending to be underage and watch professional men, educated men, queue up to risk their marriages, reputations and careers. They’re driven by dark forces. You and I are driven by dark things too, if only you’d admit it. You’re completely wrong, Worth. I want nothing to do with your operation Swaling and I’m going to wreck it.”
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file