Authors: Edward Wilson
A Very British Ending
For David and Nancy
Although a number of real historic events are referred in this book, it is a work of fiction. A few real names are used, but no real people are portrayed. All of the characters in this book are fictional. When I have used official titles and positions, I do not suggest that the persons who held those positions in the past are the same persons portrayed in the novel or that they have spoken, thought or behaved in the way I have imagined.
It was a very British ending. The soldiers stayed in their barracks, the Prime Minister resigned and the detention camps in the Shetlands remained empty except for puffins and gulls. Life went on. An hour’s average wage still bought five pints of bitter. Liverpool won the league, but Southampton upset Manchester United in the FA Cup Final. The Two Ronnies made you laugh and Abba made you dance. An oblivion of unknowing stretched across the land. The record-breaking temperatures of the following summer lulled the country into a dozy complacency. Most had no idea what happened – and no one was going to tell them. The tarmac at Heathrow baked in the sun, but the ring of tanks and armoured vehicles had gone. No heads were chopped off, but a government had changed. No one talked and the Secret State kept its secrets.
William Catesby had to brake hard. Otherwise, he and his bicycle would have gone over the cliff. But the press would have loved it:
Body of Top Spy Found on Remote Suffolk Beach
The MI6 officer, reported to be under investigation for serious misconduct, had been summoned to answer questions before a secret Whitehall Committee…
Catesby was surprised how much of Covehithe had fallen into the sea during the winter gales. It was the worst erosion he had seen for years. The road now ended abruptly with broken black tarmac hanging over the cliff edge – the warning sign and barrier had been claimed by the last storm. Just as Catesby had seen no warning of the lethal cliff edge, there had been no warning of his summons to appear before the Cabinet Secretary. On the other hand, it wasn’t unexpected either. Catesby wasn’t good at burying bodies so they stayed buried. He knew that his own fall was just as inevitable as Covehithe tumbling into the sea.
What, he thought, did they want? A full and frank confession in exchange for immunity from prosecution? Not likely. They wanted his pension and his freedom. Catesby knew he was going to lose everything. Maybe he shouldn’t have braked before the cliff edge.
The north-east wind was biting and cold, but Catesby was oddly happy squinting against the salt spray out to sea. He had been born a few miles up the coast. Catesby’s job had sent him around the world, but the Suffolk coast was the only place he felt complete. He looked north towards Benacre where the cliffs ended and the dark woods began. When the tide was high, acorns and chestnuts fell directly into the sea. During the long summers of childhood, it had been a place for secret dens and midnight swims. Suffolk was a private hinterland that no one could ever take from him. They could put him in prison, but they couldn’t erase the place from his brain.
What had Catesby got to hide? A lot. It wasn’t just murder – and there were more than one – and it wasn’t trampling over the
Official Secrets Act. What mattered was that he had betrayed himself and those he loved. Catesby looked out over the cold sea. How many of his family’s bones lay rolling there? Tossed and ground by the sea into smooth pale lumps. Crawled over by crabs and nosed by what was left of the cod. Catesby, the spawn of a Lowestoft sailor and an Antwerp barmaid, belonged to the North Sea – and felt as empty as that salty waste. He had grown up fluent in three languages, but couldn’t say what he had become in any of them.
Catesby had served the state for thirty-three long turbulent years. First in the Army and then as an officer in the Secret Intelligence Service. He was tired and battered. His stepchildren used to have a running joke that he was ten years older than his real age. When he was forty, they gave him a birthday card wishing him a ‘Happy 50th’ – and so on every year until he actually did turn fifty. The step-kids, now grown-ups, suddenly realised his premature ageing was no longer funny.
His jobs had left him with few physical injuries – bullets seemed to curve around him – but very deep emotional scars. The worst was what had happened to him in the war. In fact, it wasn’t a scar, but a deep open wound that would never heal. The puss of mental pain and self-recrimination was still coming out nearly thirty-two years later. Could he have prevented what happened?
Thirty years in SIS had left a different set of emotional wounds: the inability to trust anyone; the hard-faced rationality of inflicting pain; the guilt of complicity with the merciless machinery of the state. Three decades as a spy had earned Catesby a pension, but ruined his marriage and his closest friendships. And now that pension was in doubt too. But they were not just out to get him, they were out to get the Prime Minister too.
The Board of Trade, Milbank, London:
It had been the coldest winter on record. Ice flows off the Suffolk coast had disrupted shipping and pack ice had suspended the ferry service between Dover and Ostend. Drifting snow had blocked railways and roads. Many power stations had been forced to shut
owing to lack of coal deliveries. German PoWs and British troops worked side by side shovelling snow by hand to clear essential rail lines.
Britain wasn’t just cold; it was hungry too. Straw-covered potato clamps were no match for the severe frosts and 75,000 tons of potatoes were destroyed. Meanwhile, many winter root vegetables remained un-harvested because they were frozen hard in the ground. Cattle fodder was in short supply and there were fears for the survival of British herds. There was a real danger that food supplies would run out and rationing measures, more severe than during the war, were introduced.
The Board of Trade canteen had just been refurbished and was considered the best in Whitehall. The mood in the canteen was egalitarian as suited the time. Mandarins from on high sat at the same long tables with secretaries and the most junior clerks. The civil servants who dined there came from all government departments – including the Secret Intelligence Service, whose basement club only served senior officers and didn’t do lunch. Eating in works canteens was also popular because the food was ‘out of ration’, which meant your ration card coupons weren’t cancelled. A lot of people were scraping the butter off their buns to take it home for the family. But when Catesby tried to do the same, his new boss and mentor, Henry Bone, advised him: ‘Don’t do that, Catesby. They’re plebs and you’re supposed to be an officer.’
The BOT works canteen was not Henry Bone’s natural habitat. He described lunch there as ‘feeding time at the zoo’, but also a good place to observe ‘the mood of the Whitehall fauna’. Henry Bone looked like his name: tall, gaunt and sepulchre. His manner was patrician and his eyebrows arched as he spoke. But beneath Bone’s droll hauteur, there was a very complex person that Catesby never completely unravelled. Bone’s personal life was only a secret to the naive and unsophisticated, but his deeper loyalties were far more complicated. Spies spy on each other and Catesby had done the requisite snooping on his boss. Bone’s most famous ancestor was an eighteenth-century artist of the same name who enjoyed royal patronage. Bone himself was a devotee of the arts and a talented musician. He had also helmed a yacht in the 1936 Olympics.
‘Do you know him?’ said Bone staring at his food, but giving a barely perceptible nod.
‘Who?’ said Catesby.
‘The young minister with the moustache sitting next to Stafford Cripps.’
‘It’s Harold Wilson. I briefly met him at the Labour Party conference in 1945.’ Catesby had campaigned for a parliamentary seat while still in uniform, but had been soundly beaten by a Tory landowner.
‘By the way,’ said Bone, ‘are you still a member of the People’s Party?’
‘No, I followed the rules and terminated my membership – as instructed.’ Catesby frowned. ‘Terribly unfair.’
‘Not at all. SIS officers cannot be seen as politically partisan. Why are you smiling?’
‘Because many of our colleagues are the most political beasts in the Whitehall jungle.’
‘My exact words, Catesby, were
cannot be seen
as politically partisan. In any case, what do you think of Wilson?’
‘Very intelligent and sharp.’ Catesby glanced at the minister under discussion. ‘That’s odd.’
‘Don’t turn your head when you look at someone. Swivel your eyes. What’s odd?’
‘Stafford Cripps just pushed his chicken leg on to Wilson’s plate. Is he trying to fatten him up for higher office?’
‘Cripps is a vegetarian – he’s also a completely teetotal Christian. But higher office for Wilson is on the cards.’
Catesby smiled. ‘You seem, Mr Bone, well informed about the People’s Party.’
‘While remaining non-partisan, it is our job to be politically astute. It is almost certain that Stafford Cripps is going to become Chancellor in the next reshuffle and that Wilson will replace him as President of the Board of Trade.’
‘He’s a rising star.’
‘Wilson will become the youngest cabinet minister since Pitt the Younger. Look at him again, Catesby, but swivel your eyes this time.’
Catesby gave a furtive glance.
‘You’re looking at a future prime minister. But first,’ Bone smiled, ‘he will have to shave off that ridiculous moustache.’
‘But otherwise, you seem impressed by him.’
Bone nodded. ‘I had to give Wilson a security briefing about his planned trip to Moscow next month. We were together for over an hour and discussed the wider context.’
‘Why’s he going to Moscow?’
‘I’m disappointed in you, Catesby. You don’t seem very well informed at all. Do you even know what Wilson’s job is at present?’
‘He’s secretary for something.’
‘He’s Secretary for Overseas Trade – a very important position for a junior minister. You need, Catesby, to keep your ear to the ground in Whitehall too. There’s more to this job than spying on the Sovs.’
Catesby nodded. Bone was head of USSR P Section, which was responsible for meeting R Section demands for intelligence about the Soviet Union. Although Catesby was assigned to the intelligence branch of the Control Commission for Germany, his own post came under Bone’s expanding jurisdiction.
‘Have you heard,’ said Bone, ‘anything about the Rolls-Royce jet engines deal with Moscow?’
‘I’ve heard it was still under discussion and that Tedder was busy twisting arms at MoD.’
‘Much better, Catesby. We were involved too – under pressure from Downing Street. We had to convince the Air Ministry that selling those jet engines to Russia would not give the Sovs a long-term strategic advantage.’
‘Is that true?’
‘Not very. We lied through our teeth – which is part of our job. Spies are professional liars.’ Bone sipped his tea and made a face. ‘Ghastly. Not only over-brewed, but cold. In any case, the deal with Moscow is almost certain. The MoD has now agreed to the Board of Trade granting an export license for fifty-five Rolls-Royce jet engines.’
‘What did you lie about?’
‘We lied about the Soviet Union’s industrial capacity to turn
those jet engines into a power source for jet fighters and bombers. They are, by the way, an utterly marvellous example of British technology: centrifugal flow turbojet engines that are five years ahead of the rest of the world.’
‘But we’re only flogging fifty-five of them.’
‘Don’t be naive, Catesby. As soon as the Russians get their hands on them, they will strip down those beautiful Rolls-Royce engines and reverse engineer their construction to make their own copies – the fifty-five jet engines will soon become 500.’