Authors: Edwina Currie
The United States Ambassador, His Excellency the Honourable Lambert W. Strether, known as ‘Bill’, leaned cautiously over the rail of the old liner
King William V.
He ran his fingers through his thick fair hair and whistled softly to himself. Below, for twenty decks, the white bows curved away to the waterline. His stomach muscles tightened in excitement as he braced himself against the ship’s motion, and tried to take in the remarkable scenes on the quay.
Between the vessel and the slimy stones of the jetty the swell was green and sludgy; that must have been done artificially. A sulphurous odour of rotten vegetation arose from the water, the like of which he had not smelled since his boyhood, but it brought wistful pleasure rather than distaste. The attention to detail was astonishing – tufts of grass straggled in corners and by one wall rose-bay willow-herb had been planted, its pink flowers nodding gently. The wheels of horse-drawn wagons clattered over the cobblestones – how clever of the harbour authority to reconstruct them. A band of buskers in shabby bowler hats played nostalgic snatches of Beatles songs. Best of all, one large dray, its sides lettered in Gothic script, was pulled by live shire horses, colossal beasts with flaring nostrils and ribbon-plaited manes whose flanks steamed in the morning sun. Yet this was a real working harbour. Not Disney, not virtual reality. Liverpool: as authentic as could be found in modern Britain.
The dockside bustled with figures in old-fashioned denim dungarees, with bales and bags on their shoulders, who shouted raucously at each other and to the passengers and welcome parties. The porters were small, dark, wiry men with stout backs and broad-brimmed felt hats, their faces turned protectively away from the glare. Some had hand trolleys on which trunks and cases were piled in unsteady ziggurats; to keep the tottering heaps upright on that uneven surface took some skill, Strether noted admiringly. It would have been much easier to unload baggage by underground conveyor as was usual, but much less fun. The port, he supposed, was maintained in all its historical accuracy not only as an extraordinary tourist attraction but as a make-work project. The Europeans took such matters seriously. He must be careful, when commenting to new acquaintances, not to sound patronising.
The liner rocked gently as hawsers were flung across the gap and hitched to squat metal capstans. Bill Strether, a creature of the prairies, had not found his sea legs during the voyage; his knuckles whitened as he steadied himself. Below his eye-level black cameras at roof height swivelled, watching everyone with impartial passivity. And it was so noisy! The air echoed with cries, klaxons, tooting trombones and the clang of horses’ hooves. A sudden blast from the ship’s hooter made him jump, along with a bilious churn of the diesel engines in its bowels; though these, he had deduced on the way over, were also fake. The ship must be fuel cell driven: that stood to reason.
King William V
was, by any assessment, a marvel. Its very slowness (sixty hours to cross the Atlantic) had given him the chance to adjust to his sudden transplantation so far from home. To accustom himself to his new role would take far longer. It had also been useful to cram some of the mounds of briefing – mostly old technology, on paper, for security – handed over by the President a week earlier. Had he flown in, the forty-minute Mach 3 flight would surely have left him disoriented and queasy. No wonder air passengers were
demanding that the journey be extended to an hour to allow time at least for a meal.
By contrast the liner offered the ultimate in traditional luxury travelling of a kind that had otherwise vanished. He had indulged himself with hours of sleep under deck-side awnings, a massage with aromatherapy, and chaste dancing with a score of escorts into the small hours. And the menu! What stupendous dishes, a mixture of cuisines from throughout the globe. He had especially relished the vintage Scottish and Danish wines, and the fine mango and paw-paw specialities of Kent, the Garden of England. Definitely the way to go: he was arriving fresh, invigorated and ready to be dazzled by whatever he found.
Bill Strether had not expected to be an ambassador. He had merely raised the largest sums in the Midwest for James Kennedy’s election appeal, as local chairman. That had been eighteen months ago. He had wanted to see James in office, as his Kennedy grandfather and great-grandfather had been before him. When the contest was successfully over, Bill –’good ol’ Bill’, as he liked to be referred to – would have retired, content, to obscurity in Colorado. He was not a politician and had no desire to be one. In the headiest days of the campaign, while he slapped backs at fundraising dinners and rode in cavalcades with his candidate, he’d had no inkling that some day the motorcade might be for himself. He still had that to look forward to, when he would be chauffeured in a century-old Volkswagen-Royce to present his credentials. An exception had been graciously made for him to use a petrol-fuelled car. The King of England and Prince Marius would be first, then later in Brussels he would meet Herr Friedrich Lammas, President of the European Union, head of the free world.
On the rail Bill Strether’s hands felt clammy. The clean life he’d always led, out in the clear high air of his native state, had been a poor preparation for what lay ahead. Paradoxically, what had counted most in Washington was that his personal file was a blank. He’d done well in ranching, that was true. He was liked and trusted by everyone who had done business with him, and was proud of his reputation as a shrewd and fair man. He’d never done a dirty deal as far as he knew, and would have tried to make amends had anyone so accused him. For a moment he wished he had not been so cussedly upright, for it was precisely this blamelessness that had brought him thousands of kilometres to Europe on a bright spring morning.
He had not been President Kennedy’s first choice of ambassador: certainly not, he an unknown with crow’s-feet etched on his face by the sun. But one by one, as men and women of greater distinction and deserts had been paraded before Congress, each had dropped out. Hostile and capricious questioning was an ingrained habit in vetting committees. The first nominee had been promptly arraigned on a sexual-harassment suit by two former women staff. Similar accusations by an hermaphrodite swiftly dispatched Ms Harriman. Another had allegedly made disparaging remarks about Native Americans while a student. The next, Clifford Vidal,
a Native American, and gay to boot: several pluses there, Strether reckoned, but after the second day’s interrogation he’d withdrawn in floods of tears. A year later the President had stormed about the Oval Office in fury as his ninth nomination collapsed, and in pique threatened to leave vacant the post of Ambassador in London.
At that point he had called his distant Colorado state chairman Lambert Strether, who had set foot in Washington but twice in his career and whose private life was exemplary – about whom, indeed, nothing whatever could be dredged up. Even as a single man, a widower, he had been either celibate or at least utterly discreet, and there were no vengeful
children to disgrace him. The cattleman had dutifully put himself straight on the next eastbound plane. Congress had tired of the game and the appointment had been confirmed without further ado.
The turn of events bemused but scared Strether. He was willing with all his heart to serve his country. That much was easy to promise; it would have taken more nerve to deny a desperate President his request. Nor did the task itself seem beyond him; though duly modest, Strether did not entirely picture himself as a common man. He would be one of a team of ambassadors to the European Union and could call on advice from colleagues in the former capitals of Europe – Berlin, Prague, St Petersburg and, still paramount, Brussels. Fast trains could speed him between one and another in less than an hour. For a man whose nearest stamping ground had been Denver, the names alone made his pulse race.
He did wonder, however, about the limitations of his role, now that America was no longer able to tell either Europe or China what to do. Both had become larger, more powerful and wealthier than his own nation, even counting Canada and those less salubrious partners to the south. It was not surprising, therefore, that his instructions were to be the acceptable, affable public face of the United States, Europe’s most important and ancient ally. An air of genuine innocence would be an asset. It might be useful also in the more private tasks assigned to him by the White House.
For America’s Commander-in-Chief had a secret agenda for him.
‘Cigar?’ The President had poured two bourbons with ice, then smiled conspiratorially as he unlocked a plain wooden box covered in peeling gold stickers. Behind him the USA, Canadian, Mexican and Panamanian flags were draped in dusty splendour. Beyond the tall window the noon light blazed mercilessly. It was siesta; the streets were quiet.
Strether shook his head. ‘Thank you, no, sir. I wouldn’t know what to do with one.’
The President’s youthful face vanished behind a cloud of smoke through which his teeth gleamed. ‘Never tried one? Don’t let the First Lady see me – or the police – but I confess these are still one of the great presidential privileges. Rescued from a strongroom in Cuba. I had to get the smoke alarms switched off specially.’ He puffed happily for a moment, lifted his long legs and perched his boots on the desk. His head bobbed briefly behind a transparent presentation clock, a mounted miniature NASA rocket, a gold-plated powerbook. He lifted the cockpit off the rocket to use as an ashtray and poked the air with his cigar.
‘Now, Ambassador. To business. Europe. You’ll love it, all our Foreign Service staff do. Can’t get them home when their time’s up – they say serving in Lima after London is impossible. So be warned.’
Strether made non-committal noises. The silent circular rhythms of the clock were mesmerising; the white-painted office with its ventilators off was stuffy.
The President swung his legs off the desk and concentrated. ‘What we want to know, Ambassador, is what the hell’s going on over there? It’s supposed to be such a humdinger, a great success story. Population is bigger than ours plus the Japs’ put together, and gross national income more than twice the USA’s. A big player, and a highly advanced society, as you’ll see for yourself. But something’s wrong. We get sporadic reports of demonstrations. And there’s more. For example: who the devil are the boat people who keep getting washed up in Florida and elsewhere?’
Strether blinked. ‘Boat people?’
‘Yeah, we’ve kept it out of the news. Or where it’s leaked out locally, we’ve hinted they were illegal immigrants – nobody cares about
. The latest group washed up in the Gulf of Mexico last month. About twenty men and a couple of females in a leaky old tub. Some had odd tattoos on their thumbs. The strange thing was they were incoherent – babbling rubbish, not making any sense. Some died within a few days though physically they’d seemed in fair shape. The previous batch all died within a few weeks of arrival. When we made discreet inquiries to Brussels, we got a bland assurance that there were no problems, and that these people could be returned at any time.’
‘Are we sure they’re Europeans?’ Strether asked, for want of anything more profound to offer. This was news to him. ‘I mean, if they were Spanish-speakers …’
‘No, they were Europeans for sure. From various regions, though mostly they communicated in English. English-English, if you see what I mean. And some had papers. But what beats me is this: why would anybody want to escape Europe, let alone by such dangerous means? And what in heaven’s name is wrong with them?’
‘Is it catching, sir?’ Strether asked anxiously.
‘No, no, not as far as we can tell. Though we kept them in isolation, of course. And tests are being run. But so far, no answers. It’s been going on a year or so now, apparently; since before my time.’ There was a pause; the tobacco fumes formed themselves into an opaque blue haze a metre above the desk. With that mop of golden hair and his smooth-shaven cheeks the President seemed to emerge from a heavenly cloud. His boyish good looks had been a significant factor in his victory.
An idea occurred to the new Ambassador. ‘What age did you say they were?’
The President consulted his powerbook. ‘Ah, smart thinking. Yes, they were young. Well, under forty. The mystery may well have some link with the demography of Europe, if that’s what you have in mind. That is
unusual. The Europeans will tell you that first they sorted deaths from the environment – cholera, typhoid and such. Then the infections of childhood like scarlet fever and polio, so by a century ago the average infant could expect to reach its eightieth birthday. A higher life expectancy than in the US, it has to be confessed – but those countries had socialised medicine, and we didn’t. So: more recently, everyone’s concentrated on the ageing process. And, by and large, cracked it.’
‘Alzheimer’s, arthritis, osteoporosis, prostate cancer, strokes, poor circulation: that sort of thing?’ Strether supplied.
‘Right. You and I will never suffer from them. Nor our wives – oh, I’m sorry, Strether, I didn’t mean that.’
‘She was a Christian Scientist,’ Strether replied, with dignity. He was used to such unintentionally cruel remarks. When transfusions had become necessary, she had refused. The death, the loss, still hurt, deep inside; time had not lessened it. What remained, too, was a dark loneliness, a need for companionship that had never been filled. He sighed. ‘To be frank, sir, I think she’d had enough. Despite the improvements in treatment, it’s still pretty savage. And expensive.’
The President paused sympathetically and sipped his drink. ‘The Europeans will regard that attitude as strange, I guess. They provide most of those life services free, plus nursing-home care, though God knows how they can afford it. One big distinction between us
and the Europeans – they regularly spend half their national income through the state and don’t bat an eyelid over it. They don’t see the loss of liberty that entails. Here, Congress rightly limits us to no more than one dollar in three. The result’s an explosion in the numbers of old people over there. And they’re
. Boy! More than half the European population is over fifty and a full quarter of the workforce is over seventy. No wonder they’ve abolished age discrimination. Be careful: it’s even forbidden to say jokingly of someone that he’s past it.’