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Secret Ballet: Part 4

Version: June 03, 2004

Go to Part 3 of Secret Ballet

Version: June 03, 2004

A slip

Howard opened his briefcase and took out a piece of paper. He has a marvellous eye for detail; it is clear that he preferred criminal detection to political work. He's quite capable of cooking the evidence. ‘They aren't fighting by the rule book, so why should we?’

How far should any of us go in pursuit of what we want? It was hard to find anyone with any previous experience. I was reluctant to do this, for a whole constellation of reasons. ‘Why don't you ask Meg to do it? She's attached to the Canadian embassy. She used to work for the secret service, a period of top secret work for the British Navy to put large numbers of communications satellites into space. She's been through all kinds of unmentionable operations. She's independent, talented, courageous, and politically active. Don't forget that I worked for her once. She performed the most challenging task without a mistake. She's quite hot on that sort of thing.’

‘Oh yes, of course, I was forgetting.. It's a splendid idea, Jane, I give my consent. It is important that she should know precisely what's needed. We'd better check her out before we let her join the group.’ He went off to the staff restaurant for steak pie and chips.

It was going to be a bit of a job to find Meg. This would be a challenging assignment. I finally made contact with my friend. The cafe was on Tottenham Court Road near Oxford Street, very central for her. This café happened to be a favourite resort of artists and writers. I found her somewhat awe-inspiring and difficult to talk to. She is an avowed feminist—they busted up the Miss America competition last November. ‘The Miss World contest is nothing more than a cattle market. I'd tell you about it, except it would probably put you to sleep.’ She is blessed with immense talent and boundless energy. Her career has been blighted by some long-standing clashes with the authorities. Two years ago she set up shop as a freelance photographer.

She was in chic khaki and Cartier bangles. A merciless foe of gambling and pornography, she sat in the sun and sipped iced coffee. ‘Let me buy you a drink. How's business?’

‘Quiet. Are you in London for business or pleasure?’

‘I decided to burn my bridges and sell the company.’ Her topaz ring burned in the sun. The ring had been her mother's and she wore it for sentimental reasons. ‘What business are you in?’

‘Local politics.’ I gave her a much more circumstantial account than I had originally meant to. The waitress brought Meg's shrimp cocktail. She was amenable to some of the things that we were trying to do. ‘At a rough estimate, it'll take three weeks. It can be done within the time allowed if I burn the candle at both ends.’

‘How much you charge for every bit of work is laid down in the rules. It is sensible to work out a weekly budget.’

‘I'll pay.’

‘Oh no. This is my treat.’

Leaving Meg in a bar, I made for the town library. I tried to acquire the information I needed, grubbing about in the public library for material, sorting through data and boiling it down. The new library has won an architectural award.

We all worked together as a team. Complete secrecy was essential to our purposes. I found myself entering a world of hypothesis and speculation. I was horrified by the amount of work I had to do. We must accept the fact that there is a great deal we cannot know. Only an orderly approach to our work will keep chaos at bay.

The library staff eventually searched out the book I wanted. A strikingly pretty girl, she didn't want to seem unhelpful: she flipped through the card index. Her jeans had a gaping hole in the seat. We had a nice long chat. Howard strolled over to the long rows of pigeon-holes to collect his mail. He took out a book from the bin and went over to the counter. He started to work his way through the back copies of ‘The Times’. Then he had a brainwave. He could ask the librarian who the girl was. At a quarter of eight, in the library, he resumed his letter. The situation was hopeless. He felt that some of the zest had gone out of his life.

Howard came in from time to time, to check on my progress. He was a bit brief this morning when I asked him how it had gone. I told him I would call him back when I had some news. Teleprinters chatter away all day in his office. He was accustomed to sifting evidence and assessing the difference between fact and fiction. On the wall of his office was a large map. He spoke in a conspirational whisper. ‘I've just seen Roger.’

‘That snob in the treasury?’

‘Yes. Bowles still has the press in his clutches. He's something to do with the Foreign Office. He said they were marvellous, couldn't have been more helpful, blah, blah, blah.’

The project had been denied even this superficial official blessing. ‘Prepare for action and be on the alert. We're all working against the clock here. You must work all the more quickly now.’

My journalist friends would tell me all the inside news that wasn't fit to print. First I went to see the editor of the Dispatch. A columnist friend of mine, Bill used to write a column for the Bristol Evening News; he was appointed editor two years ago. We listened to a newspaper editor talk about his beat, an area of 30 square miles. He's a crafty old thing. He withdrew to his beloved Kent in 1966. I had an appointment with the editor of the Arkansas Gazette, the papers controlled by the press barons. ‘We had, a few years ago, a prime example of the power of the press to embarrass. As soon as we find out anything, we'll contact you.’

Howard read the newspaper clipping I gave him. ‘Yeah—that all checks with our data here. Don't bother me with little things like that..’ He was going through the drawers of the bureau. His hands ached with arthritic pains.

My humble filing system started with two cardbord boxes. I felt a bit apprehensive about the whole operation. But let's assume for the moment that everything goes according to plan... We were probing for information relevant to our needs. I went to the state department to consult the archives. Maddeningly, they gave us no biographical detail. They tried to buy time by saying that it would be ready next week. With the information we have now, we can only speculate blindly.

What really attracted me to Meg was her sense of humour. She showed a brisk blend of tact and independence; she couldn't care less what they thought of her. She is full of bright ideas. ‘You called me here because you have belatedly come to the conclusion that you need me. Mr Bowles is on to something. Anyway’, Meg ventured, ‘If we want to know what's going on, we'll have to do our own research.’ She was going to charge £140, but the extra work bumped up the price to £200. A phenomenal price? Well, perhaps.

The problem was handed over to Roger who attacked it with vigour. He was closely involved in monitoring daily progress. We were coasting along quite nicely until he started interfering. Bowles was handed every fact—names, ages, and charges lodged. He remained impervious to all Meg's sulks and blandishments. She would find out that behind his lofty manner he was inexperienced. Meg's tone was brisk. ‘The best thing would be to write a letter. These are simply smear tactics. The oddest of enemies might become bedfellows. ’ She spoke so assertively that we were sure she must be right.

I sent agitated messages to Mrs Gray, a sociologist from Howard's department, a new appointment. Mrs Gray never ceases to amaze me with her blind faith in the wisdom of her Church. Her reading glasses had bright green frames, which seemed out of character. Its hard to give a simple explanation of Rose Gray's job. We got her through an agency. She's quite an old pet, but useless as a source of information. She's always brimming over with questions. She put together the little information she had been able to acquire. The results just don't bear up at all. ‘Can I speak to you, Howard?’ she said, ‘I've been trying to catch you for ages. We've checked their stories and they don't quite tally. I'm afraid I'm on a wild-goose chase.’

‘Tell me about your findings. I don't want chapter and verse, just give me a rough idea.’

‘And, Jane, perhaps you'll bear me out on this, we got very similar results to Hobson's.’

He squared the papers before him and studied them. ‘Thank you, Mrs Gray. You've been very kind and you've put in a lot of work.’ The documents were useless—waste-basket fodder. ‘Well thanks, I really appreciated that...never mind dear, you can't win them all..’

I noticed a certain acidity in his comments. Statistics never prove anything; the oft-quoted statement that 'numbers always lie.' He tends to be rather agnostic on this question. ‘I had here somewhere a still more recent report. Aha, here we are.’ He slapped the report down on the table.

Obviously personal relationships enter into balances of power. Mildred was wheeling and dealing in high places. She has her boss eating out of her hand. Howard cornered Mildred later on in the washroom. Her bottom was pressed firmly against the wall. ‘This idiot is in a position of importance. I don't like to buttonhole you this way, but believe me, it's important. Can you chase up those statistics for me?’

‘You want me to double-cross the man I work for?’

‘No, no,’ said Howard, ‘let them be. Get your secretary to do it if she is agreeable. You just coax them into doing it.’

‘I'll chase her up for those reports.’

Mrs Gray sat despondently on an office chair. She was a big woman in her early forties. She had been aghast at the idea. ‘Never,’ she said, so firmly that it closed the subject.

By bribing her, I won access to some files. She gave us some useful information.

Howard, forgetful of the time, was still working away in the university library. I placed a folder of intelligence reports and photographs on his desk. ‘I always insist on getting my money's worth. I'll let you have them at cost.’

He looked at me as if I were mad. ‘You must be mad! Don't do that,’ he said authoritatively. He threw the manuscript aside. ‘Is it derived from authentic data or is it just another theory?’

When he calmed down, I explained myself: ‘As I didn't want to worry you, I just went ahead and dealt with it. She's no more than a cipher in the organisation. I'd better bash on with this report.’

I had a cup of tea in the canteen. We have made rapid strides ahead despite these initial handicaps. One really interesting thing emerged from this research: He is a bisexual. ‘An official told me this, not quite in jest...’ My regard for Castle went up another notch.

. I tried to see John in my mind's eye... Obtaining finance from him may be vital to the whole enterprise. I had a sudden hallucinatory vision of him. He was walking slowly across a vivid green lawn. Suddenly and for no particular reason I remembered the dog I had had as a child, images retrieved from the unconscious.

One event during the campaign gave me a slight twinge of conscience. The crisis occurred while the boss was away. Offices and professors' rooms were broken into and files removed. An informer alleged that Roger was a spy—the usual rhetoric of smelling out the traitor in our midst. I secretly believed him to be right: he couldn't resist a bargain. An agent, whatever he suspected, would feel bound to pass it on. The possibility of a security leak... had the whole operation be blown? He said he knew nothing of the break-in. We all understood the necessity of keeping Roger at arm's length. All around me, I could feel morale disintegrating. The telegrams which Rose encoded were now more mutilated than ever. ‘The less he knows the better. Let him be simply a clearing house for information.’

Later we got evidence of another leak. He's been blabbing to the press.

‘Great,’ says Howard. ‘That's marvellous. That's just what I wanted to hear.’ He glared at me from under bushy white eyebrows. ‘Top secret, he said—but that can't apply to you, can it? You believed in giving everybody access to all the information. You can't do a thing without bungling it, you blundering idiot!’

He was too choked to say anything more. I was partly to blame—questions came at me from all sides. ‘Don't be rash, Howard, we don't want to give away more than we have to. It was entirely my own fault. I must have made a slip somewhere. But how was I to know that there was going to be trouble like this?’

Howard brought his right hand to his head. ‘You pompous idiot! Can’t you see what you’ve done? You are a silly ass, why did you tell him that? You can rely on Roger to make a balls-up of everything.’

‘I made a mistake and I will assume responsibility for it.’

He was too clear-sighted not to see what problems would follow. Mrs Gray made a brief note on the telephone pad.

Over coffee, he began to calm down a little. Howard now revealed a certain talent for fixing things. It took us several hours to arrive at a decision. ‘I have taken precautions,’ he said cryptically. ‘Success in this game depends on making correct assessments of other players' intentions. So far, things haven't gone too badly. I've been around and I know how to handle people like him. We'll have to take corrective action. Rest assured that everything is under control.’

I didn't ask what this cryptic remark was intended to convey. We were warned not to get caught up in any sort of publicity nonsense, interviews or photographs. He let me off with a reprimand.

It is an old axiom that the more people know a secret, the less of a secret it is likely to be. Howard had meant to leave him in doubt, as an assertion of power. He didn't like to break the rules; he was too clear-headed to deceive himself. Such harsh dilemmas compel us to face facts and make a choice. He gazed down at the turbid waters of the Thames. The river was thick with industrial waste. Tramps have made their homes in warehouses on the river bank.

‘You didn't have to put the boot in like that, did you? It would be better to close our eyes like a complaisant husband whose wife has taken a lover. It's a question you would have to raise with Mr Bowles personally.’

‘I really feel bad about having to say he can't go. What bothers me is that it won't be legal. I hope I don't do something stupid and botch it.’

I stared at him for a long time and then the penny dropped. ‘So this is it,’ I said. I felt the hairs bristle ever so slightly along the back of my neck.

Howard's eyes bored into me. His voice was cold and decisive. He said ‘We are at war. There's only one safe way to deal with this problem. You cannot afford to refuse. We would all prefer to combine liberty with order. I have no option but to charge you strictly to say nothing about it.’

I was on the brink of losing my cool. ‘You're not allowed to do that.’

‘Who say so? You were chosen for this operation on the basis of your unquestioning obedience. We wouldn't be in this ghastly mess if you had kept quiet. I know what's going on Jane, I wasn't born yesterday! I have a long and bitter experience of dealing with that sort of person. This precaution is simply common sense. We don't want to cock the whole thing up.’

‘Don't let me put you off. This is serious business, unquestionably. I disagree with what I am doing but it is an instruction, so I will carry it out. I'll support you, come what may.’ We heard the sounds of the river rushing past boulders below. He flicked out his wrist and frowned at his watch. ‘Get me the personal file of Viktor Kowalski. I believe my Victor here would be just the person! He has some obnoxious qualities, but he is reliable.’ He could see only Kowalski, no one else.

Howard felt the need to speak the truth. Roger paid for the drinks; I could dimly discern his figure. The two men confronted each other. ‘I'd like a short word with you if I may. We want an assurance that you won't make any more solo decisions. To be blunt, I'm afraid that sooner or later you will no longer be needed here. Don't leave without explicit permission!’

Bowles probably saw through the blind, but listened calmly to it all. ‘Steady on! There's no need to loose your temper.’ He added comically, ‘I think I'm probably one of the safest people around. Honest to God, how can you believe such rubbish?’

‘You're not to blame yourself, Bowles,’ Howard said kindly. That was the last I ever saw of Bowles. He simply didn't have the faintest idea what to do.

There was a knock at Howard's door. ‘Come in,’ he shouted.

Victor came clattering in, boisterous, burly and jovial. He had a booming voice and the build of a rugby player. ‘I'll try to hunt out the information you need..’ He had a most disconcerting, roguish laugh.

It was a gentleman's agreement; Victor did not have to sign anything. ‘What's under there?’ I asked, seeing the bulge at his waistline. ‘Leave it to me, I'll fix it.’ Before I could stop him he had beetled off.

I tossed and turned all night. It may help you to know the full facts of the case. Kowalski carried out his commission with his usual competence. Two men suddenly appeared from nowhere. The sight of the two men stopped him dead in his tracks. ‘Dear me,’ he said with splendid restraint. One of them had long hair and one was close-cropped with curls. They were both red in the face from running. There was nowhere to hide. ‘The upright and respectable Roger Bowles...hi there, Mr Bowles, good to see you. I am Victor and this is my friend Sandy. Do you have any plans for the weekend?’

An insolent remark. The tactful thing would have been not to say anything. Colour was coming back into his face. He was somewhat upset but he answered civilly enough: ‘I've been given to understand that I'm no longer needed. I thought I better yell for help.’ They didn't give the poor bleeder a chance. He crunched Roger's fingers in his huge, horny hand. ‘Empty his pockets, Sandy. Go on, thump him one.’

‘Now?’ Bowles bleated. He flung himself down at Victor's feet.

‘This is what the guy means, isn't it, you dope?’ Victor's left arm encircled him, pinning both the accountant's arms to his side. A heavy blow with a club knocked him senseless. ‘You've had it, chum.’

They are very tough gents indeed, they forced a confession out of him. He wiggled about like a dog with worms. He knew he had behaved badly; he seemed truly sorry. ‘They tried to brainwash me. I'm the sort of man who's always found out.’ His wrists were grabbed and roughly he was snatched up from the stool.

‘I am doomed,’ said Bowles, with mock melodrama.

He was strangled in his bed. This is, strictly speaking, unfair to Bowles. They are clever enough to make sure that no one will associate them with the act. I took good care that they got their money. I didn't stop to think where the money was coming from. Funds channelled through this project are now being spent on library books.

His body was cast up onto the shore; a human body, tossed and tumbled by the water. Howard delivered his message with telegraphic brevity. He came in with a face as black as thunder. ‘I have some very bad news. We've just found a body in the water. The victim had been chloroformed and then strangled.’

A crisis was brewing. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I feel that he has made a serious mistake. ‘My dear Howard, you really are an awful rogue.’

‘I'm sorry. It's too bad that it had to happen. It was a victory for commonsense. Let's concentrate on what's to be done next and bygones be bygones. Take him away, boys.’

They set about cleaning and sweeping the house. He felt pain as he contemplated the evil in the universe. This incident was not a boyish prank. They said something awful about Bowles having been bait. The coroner recorded a verdict of death by misadventure. Since the family opposed an autopsy, the death was officially listed as drowning.

This man Victor, whose real name is unknown to me... Victor had been born and brought up in New York, breeding grounds for passport and ticket forgery. He spent two years in the can for armed robbery. His eyes were huge and moist. He is a clever rogue. I asked him to tell the story in his own words.

He ran a hand over his bristly chin. ‘We really fixed Mr Bowles. He sounded sincere enough, but I couldn't take any chances. Therefore, logically, he had to go. I feel uneasy when I come into contact with people who have had a good education.’

A cold, calculating criminal, he did the job with the speed and expertise born of a lifetime of practice. It's not a hard job when a day's work pays £2,500.

Those who have power will always take the opportunity to exercise it, for good or ill. Bowles's death has upset the routine. An unexpected vacancy in the Department... His political supporters had also been branded traitors. Heissman urged a more cautious approach. No one said anything about the episode and it began to sink into oblivion. This would fit the theory that he was in fact a spy. We began to wonder whether the game was worth the candle.

The sordid subject of finance

There was business to be taken care of. It was going to be awkward keeping my news from John. At home he was churlish, parsimonious, and cruel to his daughters. They were already clothed and breakfasting. The kitchen was small, compact, and immaculately clean. During breakfast he reads his letters and glances through the morning paper.

I expected to find him in a mood anywhere between stiff outrage and cool disapproval. ‘Felicity must've missed the last bus again.’

Johns's silence on the subject was unnerving.

‘I've run round the garden fifteen times this morning.’

‘Bully for you!’

‘I hope you don't mind my mentioning of the sordid subject of finance. Have you got any money? I'll pay you back next week.’

‘I prefer to stand on the sidelines and watch. I really find it much safer. Please let me read the paper.’

I was desperate for the money. ‘I need to borrow five thousand pounds. What do you think?’

‘My silence costs a thousand pounds. It disturbs me profoundly that you so misuse your talents. There's a catch in this.’

‘There's no catch, John. I swear it. You'll get the money back all right.’

‘If you'd asked me ten years ago, I'd have said yes. There was an amusing story in the paper this morning..’

‘I'm already under a cloud at the office. We need the money badly. How much money have you got? You'll get the money back with interest.’

‘I've got about 40 Penny, will that help?’

‘You can be such a brick. I didn't think you were that selfish.’

His eyes were ablaze with anger. He raised his voice and jabbed his finger at me. ‘That just shows you don't know me. The answer is no! You should ask your bank for a loan. I've got other things to think about.’

He was getting more and more pettish and hysterical. How stupid and bigoted and narrow-minded he had become. Instead of answering he parries with another question. This speeded the deterioration of our relationship. We finished breakfast silently.

Cooking the evidence

What it all seemed to boil down to was money. How on earth do we raise half a million dollars? It was as though the money had blotted out everything else. Howard flicked open the buff file lying on his desk. He would go after it like a pig after truffles. ‘Where does your husband come in? We have a tight schedule.’

‘I made repeated requests for money from my father.’

I did all the usual things to raise money. The total wasn't anything near what we had expected.

He spent half an hour browsing through sections he had already read. ‘How much cash do you have? How much have you collected so far? We need thousands.’

‘What did you do with that £10 I gave you?’

‘Ten pounds is only a drop in the ocean.’ He turned his wallet upside down and six dollar bills floated down on to the table. He counted out five wads of twenty notes each. ‘By Inland Revenue rules this is income. The taxman is entitled to details of the money you have coming in.’ He paused and calculated for a moment. ‘We'll have one hundred and seventy-three pounds profit.’

Howard's calculations were correct. He had already cabled a thousand dollars to Mrs Ruiz. She had taken to chain-smoking when she worked. She sat with her camera in her lap, lost in concentration. I threw her a coin. The coin rolled into the grass at my feet.

‘Butterfingers!’ called Mr Ben. ‘You have no choice but to come up with the £120,000. You'd better start a clean piece of paper.’

‘Well, I still have a chequebook.’

‘Eh?’

‘I said I still have a chequebook.’

I carried on working until I thought I would collapse. Where is the money to come from? Each day it was becoming clearer to me that our chances of success were very low. We are dependent on them for financial support. We had considerable difficulty in overcoming their reluctance.

Howard was not deterred by the hostile reaction: ‘We've just got to cut our coat according to our cloth. How cleverly you work at winning these gentlemen over.’

He cat-napped in his seat. There was a lack of certainty about what to do next; we just had to wait for whenever he cared to appear. He commits an hour to reading the newspapers every morning; he didn't want to clutter his mind with information. ‘You will find that ten thousand Dollars has been transferred into your bank account. The donor prefers to remain anonymous. That's for starters. You chaps are doing a splendid job.’

It was what I would call, between you and me, a bribe. Supporters have generously given us three thousand pounds. George turned up trumps and lend me £200.

The team were all hand-picked. Our work is carried on in a completely informal atmosphere. We sat in a big semi-circle round Howard's desk. He lit several candles, giving the meeting a clandestine character. Getting the balance exactly right involves a lot of art. They had been well briefed about the political situation. The discussions enabled them to have a clearer idea of the nature of the problem. There was hardly a breath of dissension at the meeting: they behaved with considerable sense and circumspection. Very few of them were privy to the details of the conspiracy.

We waited while Mr Howard checked off the things on the list. He was manoeuvring now with all the craft and skill at his command. ‘We are all in the same boat: we're all working against the clock here. For the benefit of those who weren't here last week, I'll go over what I said. I cannot overemphasize how delicate this business is. It's a business for professionals not amateurs—you can't afford to be careless in this job. There are ways of ensuring compliance. I just want you to be cognizant of the possible political repercussions. I think we're onto something big; let's have a crack at it. We need hard evidence. What we have got is purely circumstantial. There must be no mistake. Everything has to be logically analysed and synthesized. You will be working in a changing situation, where initiative, inventiveness and a bold independence are important. Now listen carefully everybody. We must be careful not to say anything libellous.’

The task involved is almost beyond comprehension. They were listening with close attention to their chief of staff. It was difficult to judge the seriousness and depth of their commitment. Penny decided not to mention her cold. Each person was given tasks according to their skills; they worked with great energy and cheerfulness. I read all the papers in the morning.

The moment for action had arrived. One of the first steps taken was the compilation of a report. The whole scheme began to take on a more practical aspect. We have a staff of three photographers and a clerk who keeps all the records straight. They had been given complete freedom to photograph what they chose. There was a man in the photograph who looked a lot like Mr Castle. He has a house in Pimlico. The house was built between 1840 and 1852. The place has no character, no atmosphere. It was probably not architecturally very striking, a home built to the standards of a bygone age. I was impressed by the clarity of the pictures. He had bought his house with the help of a building society. The lounge is twenty feet by fourteen. It's got a sort of conservatory tacked on at the back. The building has changed the character and appearance of the whole area. It would be a blessing if this building burned down.

We charted their movements. The fear of failure was omnipresent. Our photographer snapped a nice photograph of him: Castle left his bicycle with the ticket collector at Berkhamsted station. The flick of Meg's camera took him by surprise. She studied the house through her binoculars. Meg was able to gauge the distance to an inch. She bobbed down behind the hedge; her camera was clicking away. She was in full command of all her faculties; she shows a precision that goes beyond mere cleverness. Her confidence and assertiveness were starting to be seen as arrogance. She seemed to think that experience gave her the right to patronise. Who the hell does she think she is, Lady Muck?

She got to know their individual habits, kinks and procedures. Their every action and expression was recorded by concealed cameras. A private detective has been assigned to find out whether she's cheating on her husband. And there we were, as I say, producing material in a small dark room. He studied the photographs very closely. The photograph of a glamorous model... There were some particularly vivid pictures, many of them in close-up.

We wanted to get all the conversation down to tape. ‘Over there,’ she said and pointed to the bathroom door. ‘That's where we had the recorder.’

‘Very good. You're very observant.’ Howard's normally ruddy face was white with tension. He switched off the recorder.

‘That remark is actionable. Now we're really in business. Play the first phrase, stop, rewind, then play the first phrase again. Listen carefully to what he says.’

Howard manipulated the knobs on his tape recorder. He rewound the tape and replayed a few bits and pieces. By unspoken agreement they all increased their pace. They did an amazing amount of work: civil servants anxious for promotion. I was anxious to strengthen this sense of community.

They had had no communications from Mr Starke. He finally came through with the documents. All the new evidence had been collated in a fresh dossier on the case. They all participate in amending or adding to the text—slow, but steady progress. They inserted among the authentic documents several that had been forged; small and subtle artifices. He reached into his breast pocket. ‘I've got a couple of pictures you might like to pass around.’

Photos were passed from hand to hand. Meg looked puzzled. She tapped him on the back. ‘That's a remarkably attractive girl with Mr Castle, don't you think?’

Howard laughs and pecks Meg on the cheek. She knew the ropes and the ways to get round the rules. Her comments were a little too revealing for comfort. The image of the tomb seemed particularly apposite in this case—this impressive tomb, hidden away in the depth of the country. Which junior civil servant, in his wildest dreams, could ever conjure up such a scheme? They smiled obsequiously when she said such things. They were chuckling over the photographs: an album full of snapshots of Jackie and Dickie. As the pages passed from hand to hand, I breathed again. The case was proven... The photographs were next to useless but they were all we had.

Howard was such a witty chap, so amusing. ‘Okay now—underneath the photographs you'll see printed captions: “The loss of liberty”; “A Russian love song”; “Healthy profits”; “The pump room trio”. This is not particularly difficult to do.’

The whole room burst into laughter. Why are these names bracketed together? Such names were quite arbitrarily given. He was afire with missionary zeal. ‘You can caption it “Heroism”. We can give it a try and see how it looks in the photo.’

They just couldn't hold back their laughter. The last detail has clicked into place. It took an hour to collate all the findings. I was humming an air of Mozart's ‘Don Giovanni’.

We'll send him an autographed copy of our report. The folder was marked ‘Very Secret’, not surprisingly, in view of the contents. The reports were full of errors, ambiguities and omissions. Howard was known to agonize over questions of policy. ‘To remove any ambiguity we have to include other information. You need to get someone to authenticate the photograph. You better be careful you don't overdo it, Edward...right, that's it, that's how I want it: “I certify that the facts written here are the truth..”’

They nodded agreement. I had made a carbon copy of my letter—every detail of it was written with scarcely an erasure or correction. ‘You can read this. Its confidential, mind. Please underline any words for deletion.’

He took my letter and added a number of his own windy phrases. He surveyed the document with approbation; he changed a word or two and put in an accent I had missed—he is meticulously accurate in punctuation and spelling. Now and then he frowned, crossed something out and rewrote it. ‘I find it difficult to read such close print. Write the title in caps. Make a second copy on card or paper. That story will make good copy. They'll milk it for all it's worth.’

‘You agreed with me that we would rule out Franklin...this thing is complicated enough already.’

‘Let me have a clean copy of the report.’

Penny handed it over for my perusal. We both signed the attestation. I wrote my signature after Penny's at the bottom of the page. The envelope was marked ‘Very secret’. He laughed briefly and plucked the paper from my hand.

I stood up to leave. ‘Thanks for your help.’

‘Oh, that's okay. Don't mention it.’ He opened the book and put the envelope between the pages.

The report was eventually circulated to all the members. Lloyd came into the office in a vain attempt to suppress the report. ‘A secret communication from the Foreign Minister.’ Lloyd said we'd do ourselves a mischief if we weren't careful. I had a feeling that it might be our old friends the CIA.

They were invited out by Howard's head of department. That evening we sang carols. The choir was carolling away with Miss Gray at the piano. We acted out our charade with lots of giggling and whispering.

Come-uppance

The statement had to be delivered to someone who could release it to the press. He showed the letter to Barbara. She had given German lessons to a leading industrialist, a man with big ideas and keen business acumen. He is on the verge of retirement. A lot of businessmen consider it an impertinence to mention retirement to them. He brackets government and many of the advanced technology companies together. They had approached us about working with their party. A small man, brisk and natty, he had been prepared to sacrifice this company on the altar of his own political ambitions. ‘I'll make sure it's done,’ he said, with great authority.

Scandal and gossip is what sells newspapers. He made sure the story was leaked to the media. It made the headlines in the national newspapers. It was a lie, but millions of newspaper readers lapped it up. The response was so great that a whole page had to be given over to readers' letters.

The episode has some interest as a case history in this study of the uses and abuses of Press power: hypocrisy, double-dealing, innuendo and character assassination. The newspaper quoted unidentified sources in London. The depths to which newspapers will stoop to get a story never fails to astound me. Occasionally they come out with fascinating snippets of gossip, the gentlemen of the press.

The change in Richard's circumstances was abrupt. He was questioned about his past business dealings and accused of serious and gross unethical conduct. His denials of this charge served merely to lend it credence. They wanted him out. By refusing to accept the decision he had committed professional suicide. The press did a hatchet job on him. I was appalled at the quality of the reporting. What newspapers will do for a story never fails to astound me. It was developing into a very messy situation.

The sudden change had come as a shock to Castle. It is difficult not to be pleased at his come-uppance. To hide his despondency, Castle became unnaturally elated. He was quoted in his local evening paper as saying: ‘A lot of people will suffer as a result of this decision.’ His case came before a tribunal. This was his first court appearance. The trial was conducted without even a semblance of justice. Castle denied doing anything illegal or improper. Nobody believed him, of course, and this made him sore as hell. For him, helpless and desolate, it already seemed as good as over. He came down with appendicitis.

There was no real evidence against Castle—many kinds of evidence are not of much use in court. In these circumstances relationships tend to suffer. His girlfriend walked out on him. He became a target for sexual innuendoes. A lot was written about what they got up to in their private lives. They were subjected to a series of choreographed indignities. There were more disclosures about Castle in the press, the most intimate details of their personal lives. He was reputed to frequent a Mayfair brothel. That doesn't prove anything; I had to laugh at the insanity of it all. Sometimes the press went too far, and suffered accordingly. The broadside which landed the newspaper in trouble was the accusation that the Minister had deliberately lied. There were some desultory attempts to defend him. They blustered and swore that the pictures were fakes. Suddenly, by a brilliant manoeuvre, he completely reversed the situation. He claimed he was asked to do a dirty job for the government—an outrageous caricature of the truth. He challenged the authenticity of the letter. All sorts of problems assailed us suddenly. The panel accepted Castle's version of the story. There he was, looking none the worse for it, would you believe it?

Richard Castle was acquitted on all charges. He stood there, surrounded by that plethora of microphones, amplifiers, speakers, and reporters. He breathed easier; he had made it. He spoke on the radio, airing his views to the nation: ‘This is Mr Castle from the office. Let me first scotch one or two rumours. There has been a good deal of hypocritical cant...’ There was a ripple of amused applause from the newsmen. Even his enemies had to admit he had the common touch. He was looking more relaxed and in command than ever before. His statement was an extraordinary stream of misrepresentation, untruths, and inaccuracies. The journalists fell hungrily on the story. They had beefed up the early evening news programme. He seemed designed for TV with his brash authority and handsome features; he smiled for the benefit of the assembled reporters. My eyes were momentarily blinded by flash bulbs. He set up a chain of interviews with major networks. The room buzzed with excited questions. The TV reporters looked slightly baffled. His victory was celebrated with music and dancing. A huge procession of supporters coiled its way through the streets. Crowds of photographers jumped out of the shadows. Supporters threw petals at his car.

Howard said in a quiet voice, full of dignity, ‘I have resigned.’

I came back to earth with a thud, my brilliant plans crashing around me. The upshot of this episode was that we had to make a hasty retreat. The balloon went up and demands were made for a full inquiry. The situation was further complicated by uncertainty about the future leadership. The prime minister called a general election for June 9th.

David Thompson chose Richard Castle as his Chancellor. The party was falling into the hands of extremists. I was in a state of excitement bordering on insanity. In normal circumstances I would have resigned immediately. I had learned the first lesson of doing someone else's job: it's always more difficult than it looks.

Itching to get away

Setbacks can be a good thing, forcing you out of complacency. I was cleaning out my desk at the office on my last day there. Facing failure means accepting explicit criticism from others, complaints about my lack of judgement. They were annoyed by my pomposity, my insistence on taking the blame for the whole affair. They have no real grounds for complaint; things would soon get back to normal. I was particularly chagrined at their failure to hear about my activities. Howard could be heard muttering to himself about my stupidity.

They eventually talked me into taking a week's holiday. The weather bureau promised a sunny weekend. I had lost all interest in the game; I was itching to get away, on a sandy beach under a hot sun. We like to go there in the off-season. You could be walking about in the sun without a care in the world. I was on automatic pilot now. Travelling has become a drug for me: I just can't stop! Get away from it all—fly to the sunshine! I was packing, arranging the trip, cleaning the house, and saying countless goodbyes. In short, it was a hectic week.

The press was coming out of the affair very badly. ‘Did you see him last night on Question Time?’

Howard took off his raincoat and settled before the fire. ‘Yes I caught the last minute of it.’

‘He's laughing all over his face.’

‘I bet he is. He likes to make sport of British bureaucrats.’

‘I think it's imperative that we take care of Castle immediately.’

Howard had his own moral imperatives to pursue. ‘It would be imprudent of you to make enemies of those who can help you.’ Howard began to query the political implications of Thompson's statement. He always travelled first class.

He longed for companionship. We went by plane—it's an aeroplane that carries lots of people relatively cheaply. Air travel has now become commonplace.

The jeep was approaching the crest, bumping over stumpy ground. We drove onto the base and then shot diagonally across the airfield. He insisted on driving straight to the apron where the helicopter was waiting. ‘I'm sorry I was so short with you. I bumped into Mary an hour ago. How businesslike you are!’

Planes were taking off at ninety-second intervals. We had to wait for an hour on the tarmac. On the runways jumbo jets look very big. Therefore close up they should look even bigger. Hodges flicked the dial on the radio to 1850 kilohertz.

At last we were airborne. The man was still fiddling with dials and buttons. The plane climbed steeply and banked. There is nothing to see from the plane except cloud, stretching to the horizon. Only the worst bumps disturbed the passengers. It was my first glimpse of him close to. He sat there, reclined against a foam rubber cushion. His skin was covered with unsightly blotches. There was a hint of stubble round the chin.

A sudden noise made Howard jump.

‘Have you noticed anything funny about this plane?’

‘The vents clog up easily. Once I was flying my plane and ran into a storm over San Francisco... If the cooling unit gets clogged up with ice it can't do its job properly.’

The aircraft was flying above thick fog. The pilot dipped to 1,500 feet to give the tourists a better view. He hurtles through the air at 600 miles per hour.

The aircraft turned, banking slightly. Soon after, Howard was asleep, the same as always. The pilot circled and came down very fast. A computer automatically guided the plane to the target.

We landed at a small airport. My ears were still buzzing when I stepped off the plane. We walked through the blessedly cool oasis of the airport. I feared that my arrival might draw the unwelcome attention of officials. I fished out my passport from the bottom of the bag—a fake passport. The three officials waved stiffly.

Tourism is a big industry bringing in £7 billion a year. Most holiday resorts are pretty dead during the winter. The car we drove was a decidedly civilized sedan. A hotel had been built slap in the middle of the beach; the construction of other hotels proceeded at breakneck speed. A stray dog cocked his leg against a lamp-post. We turned between two big gateposts into what looked like an extensive park.

Paleo is an upmarket resort. Inside the perimeter fence, the compound was subdivided into living areas. There was something forbiddingly prison-like about the cluster of buildings. They took us to a hotel with empty echoing halls. It was a hideous hotel, the kind where they hold conventions. I enquired at the desk. A little old lady came out. She was wearing a pink jacket which clashed violently with the colour of her hair. ‘If you can just sign the booking form there for me please...I've had two cancellations already this morning. There might be civil war again in this area.’

I had my doubts, but dutifully signed the form. She pulled out a blank card and asked him his name, age, and address.

‘How much do you charge?’

‘6 pounds a night. You will then receive your club membership card.’

The facilities are terribly basic. The staff are paid £8 a month with board and lodging. I arrived with a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes. If he'd gone through my belongings, he'd done it in a very circumspect way. Among his baggage was a medicine chest stuffed with drugs. ‘Medicines should be kept in childproof containers.’

Howard went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Its surface was covered by a glistening carpet of cockroaches. He wandered out onto the terrace.

Night is falling. The sky was full of stars. He stared outwards at the sea. There was a lot that went unsaid. He stood there staring into the sky and without the least idea as to why he did so. He went to bed at ten.

I sat looking at the sea shimmering in the moonlight. Perhaps this time it won't rain... I haven't been getting enough sleep recently. I am so sleepy I can hardly keep my eyes open.

We were woken by a high, snarling caterwaul, a sort of screaming wail. Twenty or thirty monkeys were huddled along the thick branches. A mongoose chittered angrily among the shadows. They respond with slow movements of their arms, legs, and bodies. I was so scared I couldn't move. He went back to sleep without a murmur.

True, Howard had not appeared for breakfast, but then I knew he liked to get up late, so I didn't worry. I decided to overlook his unkindness. I felt suddenly very strong and serene in the knowledge of my own innocence. The trip reinstated my faith in myself.

The sun was bright and hot. This isn't a very high temperature. Certainly not in my opinion. The other hotel guests sat under striped umbrellas; dogs would be gathering in the hope of scraps. A scent of lemon and eucalyptus wafted up from the hotel gardens below. Bright birds flashed through the air, a cricket chirruped tirelessly. The efflorescence of tropical weed.. The monkeys chattered in the trees. We watched two apes grooming each other. These primates use their hands for plucking fruit and leaves.

Chimpanzees are adept climbers, sleeping and feeding in trees. Howard plucked off for himself some of the ripened fruits. We fed them for a while, amazed at their tameness. Baby monkeys cling to their mothers' fur in what seems to be a most precarious fashion. The human baby is too weak to cling to its mother for hours on end. When hunting, the animals unite to form a large team. These apes are excellently adapted for the arboreal life. Casts taken from the inside of their skulls have provided much information about their evolution.

We did a bit of fishing at the weekend. As the day wears on, the sun climbs higher and higher. Within the irregular arc of coral the lagoon was still. Sentimental clichés about ‘peace’ and ‘the open air’... We could see some long fish with grey backs and white bellies. They are called butterfly fish because of the beauty of their coloration. The fish moved silently through the water, propelled by short sweeps of its tail. Howard was sure that we would get sunstroke while we were fishing. An old man came up and spoke to him.

‘The beach is a good place to fish from.’

‘That's alright,’ he said in Portuguese. ‘Are the fish biting today?’ Wherever we go for our holidays, he never seems to have any problem with the local vernacular.

He went jogging around the circumference of the reservoir every morning. The forest people can coexist with the forest. They fished with carefully carved bone harpoons; it breaks the monotony. You've got to watch it with these people—they're crooks. Avoid lonely places such as commons, churchyards, and waste land. I could sense already a camouflaged violence in this town. No doubt the ferocious climate had an influence on the customs.

‘Don't speak in the bedrooms; they are bugged.’ He switched on the TV; the pictures flashed onto the screen. The Morecambe and Wise show, the music of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern... When he asked me to dance, I declined politely. The mosquitoes were coming up in clouds.

A sudden breeze shook the fringe of palm trees. The vegetation thickens into jungle woven with creepers and vine. This vital exuberance might make one think the soil is very fertile. But it isn't.

The island was approximately twelve miles long on its north-south axis. There is no extra land to bring into cultivation. A benevolent government in the brave new world pattern, they are asked to register all imports and exports of conventional weapons; they wanted to maintain a clean international reputation. This did not necessarily imply rejection of a communist future. They might preach liberty, equality, and fraternity, but their record on human rights is pretty awful. Their basic unit of currency is the franc, the legacy of colonialism... There were periods of civil war, unrest or breakdown of law and order. Mugging in the streets, even in broad daylight, was common.

Travel broadens the mind; the natives have to put up with gaping tourists. The ceremonies have degenerated into vulgar, commercialized spectacles. He passionately desired to see the ceremonial dances. Ceremonies are of central importance in traditional societies. They cling to all the old, inefficient methods of doing things. They often sit with one knee crossed over the other knee. The bride is veiled at first and then ceremonially shown to the crowd. They murmured invocations to the Gods. The music and dancing lasted for hours.

We walked up from Gelatao, birthplace of Benito Juarez. The shirt I was wearing made my skin prickle. The narrow streets of the old town are full of charm. Everyone was expected to do his bit to make sure that Gelatao remained a desirable resort. The town is dominated by its huge Benedictine abbey. High on its fašade you can see a naked cherub.

I didn't want to go to the bother of hiring a car just for one day. We clambered up the hill. ‘Where are we going?’

He kept casting worried glances over his shoulder. ‘Nowhere in particular.’

One old man slumbered over his newspaper. People pulled carts of fruits and vegetables along the streets. Goats were bounding off in all directions. Two men pushing a broken-down car; the car was covered with bullet holes. The entire area looked like a gigantic rubbish heap. Beggars crowded in every market-place: the ugly face of liberalism. There were piles of litter in the streets, unpainted breeze-block walls; a shelter of canvas slung over bamboo poles. These flimsy houses are liable to collapse in a heavy storm. Loud rock music wells out of a boutique.

The main north-south road bisects the town. The buildings were roughly constructed using virtually anything that was available: little huts patched together out of mud and old boards and pieces of sacking, a large colony of tin shacks. A few rich people enjoyed western consumer lifestyles while the majority languished in poverty.

Due north lay the highest cliffs of the island. ‘I know a place where we can go bathing.’

He went behind a bush and relieved his bowels.

Off we set, with Howard chattering away all the time. ‘He really enjoys blowing people up—he really gets off on it. It's a good bet that Castle will soon be killed. There is no man in the world who is proof against an assassin's bullet. It is on the cards that it will happen, somewhere, soon.’

‘Sure?’

‘I guess so. Nothing else seems to make much sense. It will be a capital joke, remembered till their last days.’

‘We aren't the stuff of secret agents, you and me. Buy me a beer, Howard, I'm bored.’

We wrote him a card that said, ‘Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.’

We climbed a hill and arrived at the cemetery. ‘I don't have the face to tell him to leave.’

‘You can make your point in a throwaway line at the end of a casual conversation.’

‘It is unfortunate that this sort of thing should happen.’

His hard grey eyes began to soften a little. ‘One cannot proceed on the basis of rigid absolutes, such as “divorce is always wrong”. Look at the bright side: at least you've still got your job.’

We were still out of breath from the climb. There was a burst of automatic rifle fire. The smaller boys were trying to scramble out of the way, the tourists began to dive for their cameras. A sniper’s bullet tore up a wall two inches above his head. We got down on the ground. I could feel the butterflies in my stomach. He was totally oblivious to the fact that he had almost been killed. ‘See if the coast is clear.’

We moved cautiously forward. A small boy stood champing gum. One of the patrols had discovered a small arms cache. This discovery killed off one of the last surviving romances about the place. A jeep pulled up to the dump and a marine jumped out. ‘Listen you jerk,’ Howard said, ‘A boy almost got killed just now.’

Two minutes later we were safely inside the taxi.

It is interesting that in common usage, ‘jerk’ is an epithet applied to men only. As we travelled together, we started to grow apart. I can't bear a man's unshaven face across the table. We weren't really compatible. How true is the old cliché that trouble shows us who our friends really are?

I'm going to sketch in a bit of the background of the current crisis. Developed countries, in effect, live off the backs of the Third World. The West has artificially depressed the market for third world commodities. Bananas and citrus fruits are the only cash crops grown in the area. The best land is reserved for such commodities as coffee, cotton and bananas. The bananas are put in cold storage while they are waiting to be shipped. The best land is reserved for coffee. They employ casual workers to pick the fruit. Labour is bought and sold like any other commodity; they could fire employees whenever they chose.

The finding of oil represents a colossal reprieve for the islanders. They were making a meagre living by selling souvenirs to the tourists. The growth in demand is certain to drive up the price. Foreign oil companies were granted concessions. We must try to build on the success of these growth industries, the developing country's vast supply of cheap labour. Middle-size oil companies are likely candidates for take-over. The most buoyant sector is the arms business: the heavy industries linked with national governments continue to churn out weapons. The army was always on call for situations where force was thought necessary. Ammunition companies grew in wealth and industrial clout. By 1990 all troops should have the same calibre guns and rifles, using the same ammunition. A serious incident along the border increased our fears of war. In the circumstances it was not surprising that there was trouble.

You shouldn't be in this country, you don't belong here. The gulf between cultures was too great to be easily bridged. They kill animals in a way that would disturb the ordinary towndweller. A criminal might receive twelve strokes of the birch—they cannot break the habit. Even today remnants of this practice remain. They fail to cast off the old and embrace new technologies. Wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations. Their inferior economic situation and backwardness were the result of centuries of misrule, the political traditions of the colonizing power.

There's a chasm between rich and poor in that society. There are two main critical areas. The first is food. Twenty-five per cent of the population suffers from malnutrition. The hungriest of them can always be tempted to break strikes. And second, this kind of policy doesn't help to create jobs. The president has appointed a committee to consider what action should be taken. The president's policy so far is all sticks and no carrots. Most leaders were obsessed with catching up with the West. Eminent politicians were making a fast buck at the expense of their innocent supporters. A lot of them couldn't read or write; they see bogeys in every bush. They have nothing to lose but their chains; their faces are lined, immeasurably sad. The ratio of children to adults is very high. A top-heavy and inefficient bureaucracy often slows simple decisions for months.

Today the relative failures of the state make the case for more individual freedom. The government was guilty of flagrant injustices, chicanery and corruption. It suppressed the desire for freedom common to all people. For twenty-five years they had failed to maintain law and order. Observing recent events there, one comes to the conclusion that the system can only be changed by force. The election is a case I point. What was happening was a sickness, a cancer in society that could not be helped. It is a society caught in the agony of revolutionary change, the rising bourgeoisie chafing under the restrictions imposed on it. We don't believe in more regulation; we sought a man capable of killing the President. Too many governments have chosen to remove the symptoms rather than the cause.

Should they discard the present system entirely? The ruling class will not surrender its wealth and power. Chaos could be prevented only by a clear-sighted and absolutely united minority taking power. This is where legislation comes in. A democracy should be ruled by the men most competent to rule it. We want a climate favourable to large companies. It will be a long time before the last bureaucratic hierarchy will be obliterated. A just, ordered society without a bureaucracy has yet to be established, a society in which wars and civil disturbances can never happen. I suppose it takes time for true democracy to work. Then they can begin to clean up the cities. We are living in a society which demands of everyone the capacity to read and write. We must learn to blend our concern for people with our respect for them; there is a vast overseas market. You get a better understanding of the way they think. We have to beware that missionary zeal doesn't blind us to the realities here. The repression can't last. Their discontent could be canalized into political revolution. They will have to make a revolutionary change, end capitalism and build a socialist society: a new way to live which, in time, will bring forth new results and new happiness. This type of society creates less competitive, more caring beings.

All this must have given the President the collywobbles. The free trade virus killed off developing industries. Anyone who favours a measure of redistribution is branded as a dangerous revolutionary; agrarian reform placed all the cards in the hands of the landowners. Smallholders are being pauperized and turned into landless labourers. They formed themselves into trade-union style associations to press for land reform.

The Bedouin came with their dark muddled faces. They constitute the overwhelming bulk of the population. Their own tongue, Tamazight, is totally unlike Arabic. Their women were makers of pots and weavers of cloth; their children are meek and colourless. They are all so doped up they wouldn't know a war had started. They have a strong sense of belonging. They bring meat, grain, and vegetables to sell or barter—their only marketable commodity. They even brought out a few English words. A few people were barefoot, but most wore sandals. Old women clamoured over tanned hides in the market. Everything looked primitive and barbarous, dirty, and odious; beggars with skinny bodies and dusty skin; emaciated kids begging milk from the callous Governor... Ought he to be forced out of the presidency? The only available source of real milk was the commissary. Most of these children were born of adultery or of prostitution. For all of these children, lying is a way of life. None of them could hope to get rich. They would often look at us with unmistakeable contempt. The child growing up there is forced to mature before his time. Children are sent out to clean shoes to bring in extra money. So only a few reap the benefits of agricultural advance. What is the salary of someone on the bottom rang of the pay scale? He will compare your life-style with his own and feel cheated. Such inequalities are the unavoidable result of liberty itself. Can he preserve the positive values he cherishes in his own culture? They all share a burning interest in independence. People with only a basic education, they turned against all their traditional cultural values, flinging the baby out with the bathwater.

The Romans brought civilization to many of the lands they conquered. Every civilization seems to have its nemesis. Literacy brings to the young unbounded freedom. They ceased to be the prop of the imperial administration.

He now considered it prudent to carry a revolver. I couldn't even shoot a bow and arrow. The woman took the gun and showed how the cylinder slotted into the barrel. ‘Push the magazine into the butt of the gun, and press home.’

‘Can you show me that again?’

We smoked constantly hoping to drive away the mosquitoes. He saw a man in a tattered tunic and a ragged beard; an old man, an elder, a wati-pulka (literally ‘big man’). He owned not much more than his bow and arrows. The old man arrived, bearing a large bundle on his head. His face was yellow like parchment. He groaned and rubbed his eyes. His school had been burned down in the riots, his parents died of cholera. He gave me some cock-and-bull story about his brother being a film star. Howard raised his walking stick and with a tremendous thwack broke the man’s nose.

The celebrations marking the 300th anniversary have been cancelled. Information coming out of the country was unreliable. Rebel groups and government forces are locked in a fierce battle for control of the country—a land where they could build utopian communities in accordance with their beliefs. It would be unthinkable for the West to turn its back on this crisis. It was necessary to crush the rebel movement before it had a chance to gather momentum. There were bodies in the street and blood stained the pavements. Many people are trying to leave the area, clogging the roads with their vehicles. Sources said that rebels had made regular attacks on the railways; radio contact was broken. They had a small army: a mere five brigades. They entered battle with just 600 men, seventeen horses and ten cannon. Two brigades seized bridgeheads on the far side of the river.

It is impossible to police such a vast area. There had been heavy air strikes against the bunkers that night. The freedom fighters claimed responsibility for the bombing. Hill 402 seemed to crumble with the impact of enemy artillery fire; the damage would cause the road to be closed off for hours. They decided to attack civil and military communications centres—they tried to avoid bombing civilian areas. Their aim is to create an orderly, just and civilised society. The soldiers dived into the camouflage as ‘Target seen!’ was bellowed. The destruction of the bridge checked the enemy's advance.

We took immediate offensive action: it was code-named Operation Pegasus. Bubba offered to take a group of us to Mysore. I picked him up on Channel 19. The team was brilliant in attack. There is no bravura, no show; everything is very precisely done. The pilots are certified by the navy. The plane crashed last Saturday just after entering British airspace. He saw an aircraft high to the east making a very steep descent. It dropped out of the sky. The aircraft disappeared in a ball of brilliant yellow flame—some mad, defiant act of bravado. The crash was ear-splitting. More than forty people were burned alive; they were burned to death. It was the historical event of a lifetime, just in its scale and sweep.

These events came as a traumatic shock. After the crash the airline faced millions of dollars in claims. There'll be plenty of money for the living, and a decent burial for the dead. The FBI is conducting an investigation into the affair. The two survivors are in hospital, where they are said to be comfortable. We will do our utmost to help these unfortunate people. And then came the clarion call: ‘Let us build a new nation together!’ The role the disaster played in the events deserves closer examination. Coffins draped with American flags... The military action of 15 August can now be seen as a catalyst. No formal declaration of war had been made. It acted as a catalyst to set off new trains of thought. A small ship sailed from Florida to land arms and combatants. The marines were invited, it is claimed, by the government. They launched a murderous attack on the enemy shortly before dawn. Most of the troops came through the fighting unharmed. They are to be applauded for their attempt to cleanse society of this iniquity. It was in those times that the best and the worst in people came out. People were nervous, and the military establishments, backed by arms industries, cashed in.

One does not trifle with history. We have broken irretrievably with the past; we will never yield to brute force. Don't discount the importance of human dignity. Even the smallest act of oppression calls out for universal condemnation. There is no common ground upon which dialogue can be based.

The events of the war took place under the eye of a television camera. Small armoured task forces had reconnoitred the area. Terrible damage was caused by heavy bombardment of guerrilla-controlled areas. Another innocent village had been wiped out in error. Tanks were crossing the river on improvised bridges. The combined efforts of police and military were at last successful. They set out to disarm the various terrorist groups. The Red Cross had been sent to comfort the survivors. Planes dropped bombs all through the night. The tactical bomb is relatively clean; no treatment more certain of arousing American sympathy could have been devised. The current wave of bombings, protests, and street clashes is claiming many innocent lives. Hospitals, overloaded with battle casualties, were severely taxed. The bodies are brought home for burial.

Nothing under the sun lasts for long. Access to foreign markets was assured. It is always the same story whatever the cultural variations. The problems in the immediate aftermath of the war were immense. The battle was won, but the cost in human life had been enormous. This was the price that had to be paid for progress... Money supply has been swollen by a large capital inflow from abroad; Conoco shares climbed 3.6 points on Thursday. They use that money to put into the money markets at a profit. In the present economic climate more progress may be made than previously. The reconstruction of the Town Hall is scheduled for next month. Last weekend saw the first withdrawals of foreign soldiers from the region. We came away with the uncomfortable feeling that we had not been welcome. Their hostility was unsurprising. It is important that health organizations and governments remain watchful.

A sea voyage

Howard was bred for the sea; all his life he felt the call of the sea. ‘We are going by boat.’ A sea voyage will do his health good...

The boat was timed to leave at 8.30. We joined the passengers waiting to board. A couple of coils of rope still lay on the dock. The sea sparkled in the brilliant sunlight. The boat had the name Morning Rose blazoned on her bow. The main bulk of her cargo comprised Indian textiles. Hendricks cast off the bow line and walked to the stern; I made my way to the upper deck. The sundeck was crowded with holidaymakers in floral dresses. There was a queue of people hopeful of obtaining the few seats available. The deck cargo was covered with a large tarpaulin. Howard, a perfect judge of such matters, had ordered a light French wine. He looked back from the deck of the ship at the faint coastline of his country. ‘Did you enjoy your holiday?’

‘Yes, it was brilliant!’

‘Those cliffs are the finest bird breeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere. It should brighten up in the afternoon.’ Over the island the build-up of clouds continued.

Shipboard romances flourished more swiftly than those on land. The girls stood around, exchanging gossip and calling out suggestive remarks. There was a lot of buffoonery and playing around. The girls were as daft as they come: teenagers eager to escape restrictive home environments.

The young man tugged at the zipper of his blue and white airline bag. He saw Clarissa immediately, but nevertheless hovered there a moment longer and pretended to look around for her. She was waiting with a collection of other girls. Her face brightened. ‘Oh, hi! It's you.’ One of them gave a tug at Clarissa's shoulder bag.

‘Why don't you go below to your cabin? It is far too cold. You should be below.’

Somewhere at the back of my mind, I had the feeling I'd seen him before. I saw her gathering up her bits and pieces for the move to the cabin. Gaskell went to his room. Correction. Cabin. He was companionable, active, intelligent, and well-read. The tanned, slim young man perfectly complemented the long-legged girls. Mark was uncommonly gifted. Many colourful stories were told about him. He looked out through the window and observed me walking along the boat deck.

Miss Ryan was curled up in her berth. The girl moistened her lips with her tongue. She was wearing a single string of pearls. He saw Clarissa as the companion of a lifetime. Her hair hung down over her eyes. She leant forward and kissed him impulsively on the mouth. ‘Maybe the sea has bewitched us both. I am not much of a city person myself. Are you the type of person who thrives on activity?’

Etta could see that he wasn't listening very much; she could not break through such a barrier of indifference. ‘Leave her alone,’ Etta said wearily. ‘She doesn't know what you are talking about. Kindly do not molest us.’

When we got to the cabin she was sitting on the edge of a bunk holding her coat. Mark smiled at me briefly, indifferently, and hurried away.

There was a camaraderie between the girls. The girls all buzzed around, expecting May Coggs. She's a bit bossy, she was a complete bitch. You know what I mean. She stood on deck gazing into the middle distance. I was balancing well, but someone turned and caught my tray with their elbow. The twelve girls grinned and nudged each other.

‘Now buzz off,’ shouted Mrs Coggs with exasperation. The girls laughed at the joke and looked knowingly at each other. They returned to their cabins, where they would remain incommunicado for the next ten hours. Their irritation slipped off them bit by bit.

I looked at the storm clouds. Flirtations often develop into passions. ‘Since when have you been so keen on him?’ Etta challenged Clarissa. She knew how impulsive and changeable Clarissa could be. Her whole personality had suddenly changed completely. Clarissa opened her bag and took out her comb. She narrowed her eyes and gave Etta a suspicious challenging look. ‘I love these simple, earthy types,’ Clarissa said. She took her powder compact out of her bag.

I ran to my cabin and threw myself on the bunk. The radio station had an open line on which listeners could call up to discuss various issues. These games could be used to break up the monotony. After a few beers, Howard said, ‘How about a sing-song?’

‘Will you sing to me?’

He answered by a low melodious laugh. ‘Would you like me to sing you a song?’

The ship was still under way, her elderly oil-fired steam engines throbbing along. Feet were pounding on the deck overhead.

Then the fog came down. The atmosphere became close, oppressive. Radio contact was broken. In a few hours the light would fail. We suddenly saw a vessel through a gap in the fog. As the ship came close and turned broadside, we saw that there was only one man on it. ‘Oh dear,’ Mr Gaskell said, clasping her hands. Dolly told the Captain, and it was all over the ship in no time. A loud brassy chord rang down the corridor, obscuring the sound of her voice.

We were warned of a storm blowing up off the East coast. The ship was swaying from side to side. It was obvious that a big storm was brewing up. There is nothing we can do, we'll just have to sweat it out. The sea suddenly turned from smooth to choppy. Little waves were beginning to creep around the bows of the Morning Rose. I could hear the chug of its ancient engine. The light breezes became brisk winds. The wind howled and churned up the water into a swirling foam. There seemed to be a gale blowing all the time. The spray blew all over the deck. Howard was lying in the lower bunk. I had taken the precaution of swallowing two seasickness tablets. The ‘Morning Rose’ was still rolling and pinching. The ship consumed a great deal of fuel. The vessel was buffeted by huge waves, spray splashed over the deck. Ships capsize when struck by these waves.

I tried the handle, but it was locked. That idiot Antonio has gone and locked our cabin door. In one corner he spotted a large parrot in a cage. Not knowing at first that he was a cock bird, we called him Polly. The shocking degree of confinement endured by captive animals...

Any lock will yield to a bit of brute force. The ship was swaying from side to side, spray splashed over the deck. The engine stalled; it was overheating. The captain spoke to the passengers over the public address system. ‘Ships have to be built to withstand the buffeting of the sea.’ The captain was choleric with rage; he's careless and clumsy and uncoordinated. I staggered across the heaving deck.

Antonio unlocked the door. The smell was revolting.

It was Howard who broke the news to me. ‘There's nobody in charge on the bridge, nobody steering!’

It is difficult to tell who is ‘average’ and who is not until the chips are down. Panic is catching. Precisely at the moment when all panic should have broken loose inside me, I felt calmer.

‘He's not on board,’ said Howard. ‘No two ways about it.’ He moved to the control console and pushed a handle forward. You see a blob of grey in the distance.

The ship was struck by a great wall of water. At that moment, the boat skewed off course, heading straight for the rocks.

Something clumped heavily onto the deck. ‘Poor Miss Noble,’ said Scylla in a choked voice. She opened the locker and took out the lifejackets and threw them over the side. She stood up, grabbed her raft, and dragged it down to the water. Suddenly an object bobbed up from below the surface. Gaskell stopped her with a light clasp on the arm. An instant later his body was banging against the side of the boat. Clarissa moaned, went limp, and rolled into the water. ‘She's all right,’ said Howard in reply to Gaskell's unasked question.

That's about all I remember, until I came to in a life-raft. There is no magic formula which, once learned, can thereafter be applied to every situation. Only now can I say with utter conviction that I do believe in God. I couldn't believe my luck. Two of the canvas bags had ripped because I had not thought of reinforcing them. The rubber raft was caught by the current and drifted out to sea.

Our chances of survival were negligible. Their total catch was one minnow. The float bobbed gently on the ripples. They're always squabbling over little details. ‘When the fish bites, hold the rod high to buffer any sudden shocks.’

The seaweed swayed in the briny water. A sense of disillusionment and fear began to creep in. Howard cursed himself for being a clumsy fool. He rolled over and peered into Mark's face. He centred himself so that the raft lay flat. ‘In brief then, do you two agree to join me?’

I was disinclined to say anything to anybody.

Howard was floating in the water with his eyes closed. He was not afraid, for the water was calm, and he wasn't very far from shore. ‘All life's buffets should be met with dignity and god sense.’ He swam outwards into the bay. He survived, fetched up by some miracle on an island 40 miles to the North.

Mark cast about for something he could use to get the box open.

‘You haven't got a hope in hell of opening it.’

He pulled hard, but without any noticeable effect. ‘I can't get the top off. We'll have to bodge it.’

He opened the lid of a canister of tea—my fingers were too clumsy to handle it properly. With extreme care, he began chipping off the white paint. He tried to steady his fingers, but they quivered uncontrollably. We eased the lid off, bit by bit.

Mark did take a peep. The bugs looked like little black beetles. He felt his own protruding ribs. ‘From a nutritional point of view, quality of food matters more than quantity.’

‘I think it stinks,’ I replied and instantly regretted it. The same warp in my nature made me do it again. There is no graceful way of refusing.

‘I'm prepared to put up with it for the time being.’ Mark paused, wiping the sweat from his face. He sounds like one of life's survivors. It took a bit of pressure to make the lid close.

Many people are superstitious about death at sea. A general slowing up of the bodily functions, death through loss of body heat... Antonio would never eat anything out of a tin. He looked wretchedly ill. The dawn sky was pale, the sun was wreathed in mist. He saw the hideous, obscure shape rise slowly to the surface. The great fangs gleamed a ghastly white. I did not sink immediately, but floated at a cockeyed angle, bobbing on the surface. The poor little perisher died in my arms.

A search party is out looking for survivors. It took the vessel only twenty minutes to reach the buoy.

The first thing I did after my return to civilization was to have a bath. The ship's remains lay undisturbed until 1975—a mile and a half below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Ellen

We got back to London by train and ferry. It had been a busy summer. My sister came down the other week. We weren't given any advance warning of her visit. She had come from London on the slow afternoon train, with a change at Swindon on the way. Their marriage is breaking up. Ellen is quite simply a browbeaten wife. Her only asset was a gentle nature. At best her ideas are misguided and at worst they reveal a refusal to confront reality. She had bright blue eyes and a friendly smile. She had left home after a savage beating.

Ellen tried to assess how she felt. She wept bitterly as she told her story. He was, as Ellen had once put it, ‘going too far’. Ellen had cried all night, in between bouts of telling him that she was leaving him. He is a geologist employed by a big oil company. They are looking into possible uses for the by-products of the extraction process. He had always seemed the perfect husband but it now appeared that he had frequently beaten his wife. She backed this up with a few horrifying anecdotes. ‘He was so beastly, you've no idea. He used to beat me black and blue.’

Her face, disfigured by emotion, was not a pretty sight. She called down God's anger on her husband.

‘I hope you kicked him out.’

She pulled out a small package wrapped in tissue paper. If she wants to divorce him, she has my sympathy. She began to look upon the act of love as bestial and repulsive.

It seemed a good time to invite my sister to stay: ‘You need a break, a change.’

She sat there, flicking ash into the ashtray. She smelled like a distillery.

‘Your hair could do with a comb. There's a towel behind the bathroom door for you if you want a wash.’

My sister was wrinkling her eyes and picking her nose. She was reading the travel stuff in the colour supplement. Her clothes always came out looking faintly home made. She started picking a spot on her chin.

‘The length of the visit depends on you. If I may be so bold, how long do you intend to stay? How much longer can you stay?’

Ellen looked at me with her mouth open. She is still only in her early forties.

‘It would put our minds at rest if you would tell us what really happened.’ I grasped the edge of a table to brace myself.

She told me clinically, almost indifferently, what the situation was. Ellen had been hit above her ear. ‘He tried to blackmail me. Now that my eyes have been opened, I shall never trust him again.’

‘Ellen, you're being unreasonable.’

She stood there, racked by indecision, and began to cry.

I had a good chinwag with my sister yesterday. If there was one thing Ellen couldn't do without, it was tea. We sat by the fire and chatted all evening.

Ellen was talking ceaselessly. ‘I got a letter from good old Lewis. Mum's TV has broken down...’ He had been one of Ellen's most fervent admirers. The people she would have liked to befriend would consider her beneath them. She would assume an expression of saintly resignation. She had stretch marks from childbearing. Her knees showed pink above her clumsy wellingtons.

Ellen was standing at the front door, talking to the coalman, a big, coarse man from somewhere in the north of England. ‘I have expected you,’ she said, inviting him inside. She straightened her skirt and pulled it down below her knees. ‘We used coal gas before natural gas came in... it might be necessary to convert the whole country back to coal gas.’

I stood very still, hoping they wouldn't harm my sister and me. The telephone rang and the caller asked to speak to my mother.

My sister came clumping back in her wellingtons. She stumbled clumsily, as though drunk, and sat down. A working woman is not so likely to cling to her children when it's their turn to leave. The two boys were inveterate liars. They had suffered their share of misfortune: they had been born into a world of blows and rows and partings. They were shabbily dressed—they couldn't afford any better. Usually you could see them, playing or brawling in the street. A lot of children are sniffing glue these days. Delinquency is often blamed on the fact that mothers are working. She resented her children claiming all her attention. Her son seemed to feel the need to bash up things and wreck things. Thomas was the only blond in the family, beside the mother. He's always been regarded as the black sheep of the family. He was sent to borstal—he had been an idiot, his heart was too big. Most of the boys in borstals are from bad backgrounds.

The main part of his work was collecting debts. He was imprisoned for three years for dealing in cannabis. His early death was blamed on drink and riotous living. He killed himself in a fit of black despair. She had to call on all her courage to accept her child's death. She had another son, who was the apple of her eye. He's a spoilt brat. ‘He never causes me any bother.’ Her son was an energetic, assertive boy, always ready to argue. ‘That son of yours will be an incredible bruiser.’ He was very young, approachable and jolly. It was a pity that his spelling was so bad. He'll catch on eventually.

My sister's dog bit me. She's been staying here since she bust up with Toby. I'm allergic to dog bites. The dog had attacked its mistress more than once. I couldn't make myself drown the poor animal. ‘It is against the rules to keep pets. League Kennels offer short term boarding facilities to all dog owners.’ She decided to leave before she outstayed her welcome. She left after breakfast on Saturday morning.

Love

Felicity sat twiddling her long dark hair. She has become David Boon's steady girlfriend, the big-headed loud-mouthed, bumptious youngster. Nobody stayed up to give us our supper. ‘I'm pretty bushed after last night. You may have to dive in and burrow for whatever frozen packet you want.’

‘Isn't that a bit odd? Ever since you arrived you've been causing trouble.’

Felicity cried with unaccustomed vehemence, ‘Yes, I know!’ She's in one of her bad moods. Speeches and protests were of no avail. She knows her duty perfectly well but she won't do it.

She looked as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. He sat and chewed his fingernails; she took him by the hand. ‘If anybody wants me, I am upstairs.’

They go upstairs to their disorderly bedroom. I could hear the clink of cutlery. The selfish little beast! She had the radio playing at full volume. Attempts to persuade her to come down were unavailing.

Love is a ‘loaded’ word. It's always been a taboo subject between us. Falling in love is a beautiful experience. For them, the chemistry was right: they had hit it off from the start. They want to look at each other and at the same time they want to look away. She liked him even when she was quarrelling with him. He was no longer a boy; a tough, oversexed working-class kid, he responded ardently to her advances. Having done it once, she made a habit of it. They were attracted to each other sexually: there's not an atom of romance in her. They have no sense of sin. In her own way, she was thumbing her nose at all those grown-up phoneys down there. She assured me that her parents were broadminded. Of course it is wrong for young people to accept blindly existing standards. They could not bear to be apart; they smile, touch, and generally behave more intimately. Love is a bastion against loneliness. It is love that makes the world go round. Ultimately, no doubt, love casts out fear. Their sense of justice gave them armour against the contempt of others. He did his best to buoy her up. They were wont to take long walks in the evening.

‘Have you apologized to her? She will become broody and resentful if you don't treat her right.’

John drank the last of the brandy. ‘Intercourse may mean a baby in nine months' time.’

‘John, I do believe you are jealous! Look, just drop it, alright? You're behaving like a perfect idiot. Give her as little cause as possible to dislike you. Let Felicity stew in her own juice.’

‘She is probably trying it on to see how far she can go with you. She’ll never mend her ways, if you ask me.

She needs to learn what truth means and how it differs from falsehood and fabrication.’

Aunt Alice is coming for the weekend. I used to live with my auntie. She was a small, bird-like woman. My aunt was caught in that dreadful English middle-class trap of snobbishness. She wore her hair in a tight bun. Her darting birdlike eyes peeped round the door. She came bumbling in with a saucepan of water. It slipped from her fingers and fell with a bump. If you ask me, the old girl's gone quite cuckoo.

The children had capriciously decided to despise David. They were not listening to John's ranting. He became increasingly off-hand with Felicity. She lingered by the door. ‘You like David a lot, don't you? You'll only be in for a disappointment. Come on downstairs and cook us a bit of supper.’

She’s got real class. I couldn't help a sneaking regard for them. David looked debonair, at ease. He had square shoulders and an athletic frame. Their two heads were close together; he gave her a nip, and then something of a bite, on the lips. He was having a good grope. She grinned at me from afar. The heat made them both randy. She put her arms round his neck and kissed him. The grin lingered, but I sensed something troubled underneath.

They were kissing passionately. Aunt Alice unconsciously moved back a pace or two. Next moment they were rolling about the floor. All this was a bit bewildering to Aunt Alice. My only worry was that my aunt would be upset. She kept her ears cocked for any mention of her name.

John always bitches about all the chatter that gets on between them. Now and again, he caught a whiff of a peculiar smell. His ears were sharply attuned to anything coming from the bedroom. Both of the girls commented on David's size.

‘They've had another bust-up. Do you think they are sleeping together?’

‘That's none of your business—that's her business. You may not think much of him but he's all the world to Felicity.’

John shunned such frivolity. ‘It's only puppy love. I do not begrudge her that happiness; I can't understand why she likes him so much. It isn't as though he's good-looking at all..’

‘Two methods of reproduction, sexual and asexual. They become sexually mature and breed. That's the answer. As for the cause, how do I know?’

She's got real class: she did it with the full blessing of her parents. Even if you only do it once, it will never be forgotten. Well, I'm not going to stop them. ‘Live and let live’—that's my motto. You can't change human nature. The best you could hope for was that it didn't happen too often. One day she may wake up to find that all this happiness has burst like a bubble. I speculated on the very improbable fact that she might be going to have a baby.

The breeding season is a very long one. John became aloof and silent, gazing past Felicity. He caught them in bed together.

‘I don't think I can stand being in the house with him for another minute.’

‘Don't be so ridiculous. Sex need no longer be regarded as shameful or unmentionable.’

The back door opens, and there is Felicity. She was petulant, selfish, arrogant and occasionally callous. She had dropped several hints that she knew where John had spent the previous evening. I had the most appalling depression.

I woke to hear a strange, barely audible sound from downstairs. He cocked an ear towards the stairs. ‘What was that bump I heard just now?’

‘For goodness sake! Can't you keep your voice down?’

The sound of gasps and moans boded ill for what we would see when we opened the door.

‘Guilty pleasures...there must be something very kinky going on. I'm pretty certain she enjoys it.’ He gave a malicious cackle. ‘Just listen to that noise!’

I was too far away to overhear their conversation. He could only just hear them. She was having a wild argument with David.

‘I'm sick of her blustering bonhomie.’

‘That's all very well’ came the muffled reply. The voices merged with one another.

‘Is it fun?’

‘Not at first. It's scary.’

‘I thought you'd make your home with me.’

‘Yes but-’

‘There's no yes but. I'm tired of all your ifs and buts. You shouldn't tell such obvious lies. What I hate about you most is the loathsome way you use other people.’

She put her head on her friend's shoulder and began to sob; she felt a lot better after a good cry. ‘It was like Jane to be so intense and dramatic about things.’

David was glad of the chance to change the subject. ‘Don't do anything that is beneath you.’

‘I read you,’ she said softly. ‘Believe it or not, I'm feeling quite homesick.’

Felicity stopped out all night last Saturday. He doesn't want Felicity to meet his boozy drinking companions. They struggled on, snatching happiness where they could. She handled his body with the carelessness of an expert. The two of them drank up a whole bottle of gin. She concealed the bottle beneath her mattress. People in the town started making rude comments.

Go to Part 5 of Secret Ballet

Last update: 16 October 2008 | Impressum—Imprint