Authors: James Naughtie
The characters in this story, like their governments, are imaginary. Only the cities and the highlands of Scotland are real.
Will Flemyng, minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London.
Francesca Flemyng, his wife.
Mungo Flemyng, historian, his brother.
Lucy Padstowe, civil servant, his private secretary.
Paul Jenner, secretary to the cabinet and head of the civil service.
Jonathan Ruskin, cabinet minister in charge of government co-ordination.
Janus Forbes, defence minister.
Harry Sorley, secretary of state for education.
Tom Brieve, foreign affairs adviser to the prime minister, 10 Downing Street.
Gwilym Crombie, private secretary to the government chief whip.
Jeffrey Sparger, Elias McIvor, ministers.
Chief Inspector Jarrod Osterley, metropolitan police special branch.
George Denbigh, clerk, House of Commons.
Sam Malachy, officer in the secret intelligence service, MI6.
Arthur ‘Babble’ Babb, the Flemyngs’ caretaker at Altnabuie, Perthshire.
Aeneas MacNeil, a priest.
Archie Chester, a doctor.
Abel Grauber, diplomat, US mission, United Nations, New York.
Hannah Grauber, his wife.
Maria Cooney, chief of a department of US intelligence, Washington.
Zak Annan, Barney Eustace, her assistants.
Joe Manson, an operative for Maria.
Guy Sassi, CIA officer.
Jackson Wherry, US embassy, London.
Bill Bendo, liaison, US mission, West Berlin.
‘…I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the griefs of wild, unknown men.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald,
The Great Gatsby
Will Flemyng took cover. The falling willow branches shielded him from view and he watched Lucy weave through the encampments of deckchairs in the park, passing him unawares. He was close enough to hear her humming a tune as she steered a course towards the office, beyond the trees. But Flemyng stood rock-still in his hideaway and stayed calm. His life had so often involved the deception of friends.
When she had gone, he slipped from the fountain of greenery that protected him, and a few steps took him over the little bridge and away. No one stirred in the crowd around the lake and not a single duck rose from the water. He left them slumbering into the deep afternoon, turned his back on Whitehall and let London swallow him up.
Sam would be punctual, reaching their rendezvous at the appointed minute and moving on if Flemyng didn’t appear. He had in mind the last scribbled words on the postcard he had destroyed in the early hours of the morning: ‘Don’t dawdle.’ They were playing their old game.
That meant there was danger, and his second encounter came less than three minutes after Lucy disappeared.
He had crossed the Mall and climbed the steps at the other side, eagerness lengthening his stride and speeding him up. As he turned the corner, a government car slowed down alongside him, pulled up and parked a few yards ahead. He couldn’t turn back without risking a scramble. Knowing the back of that head and the cut of the spade beard, he prepared himself and felt a flicker of fear that surprised him. The passenger heaved his bulk out of the rear seat, spotting Flemyng as he straightened up, and pushed a government red box out of sight.
‘Will!’ Jay Forbes could always summon up cheeriness from the depths. He steadied himself on the pavement with one hand against the car, and boomed, ‘Whither?’
‘Hi, Jay. Lunching, I assume?’ Flemyng smiled and raised a hand in greeting. He swung his jacket over one shoulder.
‘Not going for a swim, that’s for sure.’ Forbes grinned. ‘On patrol. You know me.’
He took a step forward and leaned closer. ‘Ball-crushing cabinet committee. I was called in. Jonathan Ruskin chaired it – God knows why – but at least he gave your Foreign Office lot a bollocking. Defence sails on, thanks to the Russians playing around. Nothing like having a frisky enemy. Hardly had to say a word.’
He laughed and his eyes gave Flemyng a slinky scan from top to toe, unblinking. He seemed to balance his weight on one foot in an ugly pirouette, drops of sweat springing from his broad brow. His cream shirt was too heavy for the heat, and he wore a purple brocade tie. ‘What brings you out in the sun?’ he said, and didn’t wait for an answer. Swinging round, he gave a merry wave and steadily climbed the steps to his club. There was a rattle of glass from the tall door as it closed behind him.
Flemyng took a moment to get back into his stride, caught between on-and-off affection for an old friend and alarm. He concentrated on breathing regularly, and crossed the street to stay his course without looking back. By the time he reached the next corner he had found a rhythm, and was a picture of calm. His rich blue linen suit seemed to brighten with the sun and his polished black shoes caught the light. He was tanned and slim. A man of style and purpose, on the move.
Summer crowds swarmed and chattered around him, yet for Flemyng the winding down of the dog days brought claustrophobia, and the contrary suspicion that he was adrift on a wide sea with a spreading horizon, maybe lost. Despite the status he had achieved and the famous confidence that was his shadow, he felt creeping over him the fear that Sam had stirred up.
Striking across Soho, he wondered if he’d be recognized. Strangers were fine; friends worried him more. His route steered him away from places where they might be lunching, or spilling out from a familiar bar. He had plotted a course around obvious dangers, trying to turn the city’s byways and surprising angles to his own purpose and safety. It had to be a walk. Government cars turned a few heads, and ministerial drivers were the princely chatterers of Whitehall, alert to the slightest trembling in the web, and reading the political runes with a deadly eye. Their ears picked up in an instant the enticing beat of a private crisis. He thought of Forbes’s man watching their encounter on the pavement from the car, his eyes turning to the mirror and away again.
Will Flemyng savoured his rivalry with Forbes, his opposite number at Defence, each of them climbing the ministerial ladder at the same pace, with a seat in cabinet the prize for the first to haul himself up to the next rung. Although he carried the weight of his name – Janus Forbes had borne the two-faced jokes on his back since schooldays – he could lighten a room with his high-octane bonhomie. And for Jonathan Ruskin, of an age with them in his mid-forties but already in cabinet and entrusted with the right to roam in the corridors of every government department, he felt less jealousy than an outsider might have expected. The secret friendships of politics persisted, and it was helpful to be close to the minister who was the first to carry Ruskin’s dread but enticing label, the Co-ordinator. ‘I’m the pioneer,’ Joanthan had said on the night he was appointed in a chaotic ministerial reshuffle the previous year, ‘but I won’t be the last to do this job.’
In the street, Flemyng checked his watch. He was now at the game he and Sam had learned together, when they walked the same frontier – checking faces, watching for the one that turned away too quickly, remembering the old rule that when you sensed the absence of the normal, there was trouble round the next corner. With an actor’s ease he established a comfortable pace and pressed on. Lifting his head, for a moment he thought a woman coming towards him might have clocked him as her eyes came up to meet his. Elegant, distracted. He broke his step, and cursed silently. She slid past him with no more expression than a ghost’s.
Then the touch of a dream, like a whisper of silk.The passer-by had a hint of his mother’s spirit – something about the walk? For a moment or two, in the Soho steam enveloping him, Flemyng felt the whisper of a breeze from home, coming down from the hills and up from the burn that cascaded past the woods on its way towards the loch. A happy picture flashed in his mind’s eye, of his mother in contentment, perched at her easel in the wide first-floor window on the southern gable of the house to catch the last of the sun, her shadow fading gradually into the dusk of an early-autumn day. Mungo and Abel were with him, and they walked three abreast up the rise from the loch towards Altnabuie, where a flicker on the bow window of the drawing room told them that Babble was lighting the fire. Soon they would be together in their favourite room and could draw the evening around them. They would sit down at the old orrery, setting off its mechanism and watching the brass planets and moons weave their courses in perpetual peace.
The bright idyll faded as quickly as it had appeared.
‘Happy days,’ he said, and realized that he had spoken louder than he’d meant to. A barrow boy on the corner laughed, unbuttoning his shirt and scratching himself in the heat. Flemyng raised a hand in friendly farewell and hurried across Oxford Street, which he disliked more than any other in London, striking westwards for a few minutes. He looked at the sign on the corner. Harley Street, Sam’s choice. Just in case, Flemyng carried on to the next turning, where his discipline faltered for a moment. At the last, when he should be keeping on the move, he paused.
Fame and privacy clustered together at the door of every mansion block around him, each with its ladder of shining brass plates bearing a list of the doctors busy inside, the top men, whose names were whispered among the desperate rich and the lonely, and accorded by them an intimate celebrity. The greatest secrets were so often the greatest boasts.
A friendly voice, welcome in any other circumstances. No one he knew, and no one who knew him, because there was no giveaway smile. A guy on the street in helpful mood, no more. An innocent.
‘No, but thanks. On my way, that’s all. Just enjoying the warmth.’ Flemyng pulled a dark blue handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his brow.
‘Aren’t we all? Ta-ta,’ came the reply.
The ships passed in the night and Flemyng watched him sail off towards the happy tables of the Cock and Lion on the next corner, jacket slung off and trailing on the ground, unseasonal pin-stripes sliding dangerously down his rump, an arm waving high in the direction of a friend who had appeared through the doorway of the pub, two foaming glasses raised in silent salute. Flemyng envied them.
Nearly there. First, the phone box on the next corner. He made a pile of coins and dialled, thinking of Mungo making his way to the hall at Altnabuie, maybe having slipped down the iron spiral staircase from his library or come in from the garden with the dogs running ahead and capering at his feet. The line clicked, and his brother’s soft voice said, ‘Flemyng speaking.’
‘Mungo, it’s me. We’re well, I hope.’
‘We are, I’m glad to say, little brother. And all the better for hearing you.’ His voice was reassuring. The sun was on the hill, the bees in the lavender. All calm. They spoke for a minute about the heat, stifling London and the cooling shimmer on the loch at home, before Mungo said, ‘You are still coming north, aren’t you?’ His change of tone betrayed a suspicion that something had gone wrong.
‘It’s why I rang. I may be delayed a little. The weekend should work out, but I can’t be sure. You know what it’s like here in summer. Politics goes haywire; a little daft. So I’m afraid I can’t promise.’
‘Please come. I’ve got all those papers and we do need to talk. They’re ready for you.’ Mungo was speaking more quickly.
‘I will try. Be sure of it.’ There was a brief silence, then Flemyng said, lightly, ‘One thing… I wondered if you’ve heard from Abel.’
‘Nothing back yet.’ Flemyng could hear his brother moving, perhaps sitting down. He was conscious of the echo from the hall. ‘I’m sure he’ll be in touch.’
Flemyng said, ‘Of course he will. And I’ll be coming home… when I can.’ The phone gave three beeps. He looked at his watch, slid another coin in the slot. ‘Soon. Try not to worry.’
He spent a few seconds more in the box, oblivious to its rancid smells, before he pushed open the door and turned back along the street.
Just as the bells on two nearby churches began to sound a ragged sequence on the hour he reached the opening to Mansfield Mews and Sam appeared from behind him. He had the knack of materializing from nothingness. A hand on Flemyng’s shoulder and they were moving towards the shadowy side of the street. Sam was broad and beefy these days, shorter than his old friend, his curled russet hair grown longer. He wore black jeans and carried a cracked leather jerkin that made him look as if he was on the run. At first sight he was threatening, but had soft liquid brown eyes. Flemyng believed that most secret servants came in two guises: the silk-smoothies who were quiet and always listening, or the unbuttoned wild boys who were always talking. Each to his own, but sometimes he wished he had been more like Sam.