Sunday, 18 June 2017

Freedom to Choose

The morning after polling day, I decided to camp out on [FB] Face Book, with a cup of piping hot tea, crowned with a slice of lemon. As my PC whirred into action, my ear was picking up what the ‘regular’ callers to LBC Radio, had to say about the election results. I quickly posted on FB, that the LBC presenters would be choking on their saliva, as they reported the results. There were more than a few callers from both major parties, incandescent with rage, apoplectic even, and others, who were overwhelmed with joy, that ‘their leader’ had won. Anyone engaged in the political process in the UK in June 2017, knew that both those emotional responses were a tad extreme, considering the reality of the results.

I laughed a lot. My conclusion was that some LBC presenters, could conceal their emotions better than others. The callers needed not show any restraint, after all they were not directly responsible for broadcast content, so of course they let rip, and depending on the direction of travel, and how it resonated with the presenter of a particular show, callers were allowed to eat into advertising and news time. Otherwise, they were seriously curtailed. It is what is known as media freedom, I believe.

Meanwhile on FB, I was hopping on and off ‘friends’ threads, and whipping up quite a frenzy. The non-voters’ / conspiracy theorists, were trying to convince me, of their justification for not voting, and me retorting about Emily Pankhurst and Harriett Tubman. I even resorted to name calling, as ‘pimps who feed off the energy of voters', who at least were throwing their hats in the ring, to try to make a difference, rather that lying prostrate ringside, and blowing hot air. I asked one man, if when he or his family needed medical services, if they beamed themselves up to Mars? Of course, I then proceeded to answer my own question, in order to make my point. I was on a roll, and had garnered the support of others with even more vitriol, for these passive aggressors. Who were confirming themselves, to be wrong and strong, in their condemnation of voters, as ‘sheep’ for participating. I have heard the saying that arguing with an idiot makes you one too, but it is entertaining for a minute.

Then lo and behold, I stumbled on a post referring to a nude image of a USA ‘celebrity’ that had been taken down by Instagram. I found the airbrushed, plastic looking image, partially clothed with hairy areas faded out, and considered for a moment if this was a thread [debate] that I wanted to join. Well, I was already in combative mood and went in. Gently at first, because the pseudo feminist hijackers, with the ‘right to choose’ as their clarion call, did not appear to understand that in choosing, we have responsibilities, which is the same viewpoint, I was putting to the proud non-voters, who if they did not have the right to vote, would be marching across London to Number 10 to demand their right.

This photo of a hairy mound, was being commented on as ‘a revolutionary act’. One internet ‘click’ and we can see millions of women in this state. However, the cult of ‘celebrity’ seemed to make this particular photo a talking point, a ‘cause célèbree ’. I do not believe in ‘Celebrity culture’, and claim not to participate in it.

My belief here does confuse me a bit though, because back in 2008, I organised a coach trip from London to Old Trafford in Manchester, to watch the Reggae Boyz Jamaican football team play Manchester United. I was excited, anticipating the game. As the Manchester United team, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and others walked onto the pitch. Well, I totally fell apart. As the tears streamed down my face, my son, who was about 20 at the time, was saying through gritted teeth, ‘pull yourself together mum’… all I could do was point and say between sniffles, and screams, Oh my god ‘there’s David Beckham’.  Does that make me a hypocrite? Well, whatever, celebrity culture is rubbish. At least Footballers achieve something, and they work hard, enough said.

My parting shot, regarding the ‘freedom of choice to expose your minge, if you want to’ debate was that anyone could do it. It did not require any talent. I myself would need to be airbrushed, so that only about 25% of me remained, to fit the current beauty ideal, but hey ho. We do have the technology.

On more serious note though, many died for fought freedoms, enduring untold suffering and anguish. The choices we make, in the wake of justifiable rights and privileges, at a time when we are surrounded by a multitude of opportunities, is worth interrogating. I am indebted to those that came before me, who enabled my current rights as a female, and as a citizen, and to spout feminism whilst demeaning that which is sacred about the feminine, is an oxymoron.

Emily Pankhurst
Harriet Tubman

Monday, 12 June 2017

15. Maiden flight by Emma Harding

“Have you seen who’s in the paper?” The bedsprings creaked as she shifted her position.

“Given I’m still asleep, darling, I would say not.”

“Well, wake up then and have a look. I think it will intrigue you.”

I stayed where I was for about 10 more seconds before concluding that I was indeed intrigued. I rolled over towards her and opened my eyes. She was sitting up in bed, the newspaper spread across her lap, her profile in silhouette against the light streaming through the insubstantial curtains. 

“Here, take a look,” she said, moving the paper in my direction and placing an immaculately manicured fingertip on a small grainy picture at the bottom of the page. I peered at it and recognised him immediately. A tall, smartly dressed older man with a young lady on his arm standing on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street.

“R,” I said. “Amazing what the right school tie does for you. Seems like they’ve forgiven him his misdemeanours then.”

“We knew he was in the clear the minute you were debriefed, didn’t we? They never had any intention of taking him to task. I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t in on it - or at least aware of what he was up to - from the start. Anyway, enough about R. It’s the woman he’s with I’m interested in.”

“The woman?” I hadn’t really noticed her. The caption beneath the picture read, retired MI6 boss Sir Roger Clements and companion meet Prime Minister MacMillan. She did though, on closer inspection, look familiar. Finally the penny dropped. “Good grief! Megan.”

“Megan,” she confirmed. “Wonder what she’s up to.”

“No good, I should imagine.”

“That’s a bit harsh. She did save your life, let’s not forget.”

“I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean I would trust her with it again.”

“The two of them probably deserve each other.” She leant over and planted a kiss on my forehead. “Just like us.”

“You’re surely not comparing us to …” I gestured to the picture of the pair and then to the room in which we lay, in a cheap, not particularly cheerful guesthouse. “We’re not quite in their league.”

“Well, Alan, my love,” Valerie said with a smile. “Two ex-spies shacking up together with who knows what agenda. I’d say that was pretty similar.”

“Agenda? What do you mean by that?” But she was already up out of bed and half way towards the door, grabbing a towel on the way. 

“There’s always an agenda,” she said, without looking at me. She opened the door and disappeared across the corridor towards the bathroom.

Perhaps she was right. Her motives at least remained a mystery to me. For a start, what on earth was she doing with me? I still couldn’t quite believe my good fortune, after all that happened last summer. After the excitement on the plane, then the recriminations, rapprochement, media speculation, official denouncements, denials and obfuscations, then the slow gentle descent into obscurity. She came looking for me. Chose me. But I didn’t really trust that she would stay for long. Both of us had our secrets, but, I suspected, her more than me. Who, after all, was she really? She had double-crossed me, the Russians, probably the Americans as well. Was she still playing me? But, more to the point, did I care? The thrill of not knowing was far better than the stultifying peace and quiet I’d been sinking into since Istanbul. Only the inaugural flight of the Comet 4 in October had injected any real excitement into my existence before she had shown up, again. The first commercial plane designed by the British using the technical specifications that I had carried, hidden, fought over, lost and retrieved from Paris to Cairo, via Algiers. And I got to watch its maiden flight. 

“What are you smiling about?” Valerie asked, as she re-entered the room, accompanied by a cloud of steam and the scent of lavender.

“Nothing, darling. But we best get on a move on. We’re on a tight schedule.”

“You’re the one still in bed!” 

Half an hour later I waited at reception for the landlady to prepare our bill, watching Valerie as she stood by the front door, reading the noticeboard. She wore a closely-fitting cream suit, a turquoise scarf covered her head and she held a pair of dark glasses loosely in her hand. Elegance personified. It occurred to me she was less a woman of many disguises, more a woman of many layers. And I was enjoying relieving her of each and every one. 

“Any messages?” I asked the landlady quietly, as I wrote a cheque. Any money I’d made from my exploits was rapidly diminishing.

She leaned towards me, seeming to appreciate the need for discretion. “Yes, sir,” she said in a whisper, “the airline called to confirm your flights. New York, they said. How wonderful.” 

“Yes,” I said, “And a surprise.” I nodded towards Valerie and the landlady looked delighted. 

“What’s that?” Valerie said, her old instincts clearly alerted. She walked towards me, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. Yet a smile played across her lips. Could she see through me?

I shook my head. “We all have our secrets, do we not, darling? As you so rightly said, everyone has an agenda.”


Monday, 5 June 2017

14. Istanbul Airport by Andrew Shephard

We craned our necks to see who would be the latest arrival at the party – all except Dmitri, who kept his gun pressed into my chest. It appeared he was the only one not to be surprised by the sudden appearance of the head of British Intelligence.

‘R’ wrinkled his nose. “My God, it smells worse in here than it does out there. Fear does that, doesn’t it? Never mind, we’ll be on our way soon. You can put your toy down, Dmitri. The games are over. Alan can either hand over the complete microfilm now or he can wait until we take him apart piece by piece in the Lubyanka.”

Dmitri moved away from me and I brushed my shirt to erase the impression of the muzzle. Perhaps it was the heat, but I was confused. I needed time to think. Why was ‘R’ speaking to Dmitri like he was an old friend? As if they were on the same side…

The penny dropped and a wave of disgust and nausea swept over me. I had spent most of my career working for a traitor. A second later, no more, and I realised that my retirement from the service had nothing to do with age, and everything to do with my nagging doubts about R. One second more, and I felt the rage of the wronged – the bastard was using me one last time. The whole charade, me included, was his ticket to safety, to the arms of his beloved comrades in Moscow.

The rage threatened to overwhelm me. I thought of grabbing Dmitri’s gun and shooting my way off the plane. I forced myself to take a deep breath and relax into my seat. I made a mental checklist of who I might be able to count on. Johnson? Yes, he was there under protest. The other American agent, Markman, obviously not. The Creightons? Unreliable amateurs.

Valerie? I caught her eye and she looked away, her nose in the air. But trained to look at the whole person, not just the expression, I saw one of her long painted nails pointing at herself. With Jean-Jacques just behind me, that meant four against three. They had guns, but they didn’t know I was not alone.

“Come on, Alan. Which is it to be? Here or the Lubyanka? I haven’t got all day. I have an appointment to keep. Hand over the microfilm and I’ll let these other good people off the plane. I may even let you go back to divorce cases and lost dogs. But I may not. I can see you as the villain of the piece, kidnapping me and dragging me off to Russia before your cover as a double agent was blown.” He sounded in complete control, but beads of sweat were running down his temples. He nodded towards Markman. “Enough time-wasting. Time to start the engines, Charlie.”

I took a cigarette from my slim gold case and lit up. “I never did like you, Roger. At least I understand…”

Valerie stuck out a foot and tripped Charlie Markman as he walked down the aisle towards the cockpit. Pretending to go to his aid, she kneed him in the kidneys and kept him pressed to the floor. Johnson stood up. Dmitri waved his gun, uncertain for a moment who to point at. I tossed my cigarette aside and rushed up the aisle towards ‘R’, inspired by rage and reconciled to death one way or another. Dmitri took aim at me, but Megan jumped from her seat and screamed.

“No, don’t kill him.” She took a bullet and slumped to the floor. I leapt over the bleeding woman and rugby tackled the head of MI6, knocking the wind from him with a head-butt to his stomach. Following close behind me, Johnson and Jean-Jacques shouted in unison, distracting and then disarming Dmitri.

The ordinary passengers at the back of the plane were screaming in panic at the sound of the gunshot, but a state of calm was soon restored in officer class as Johnson and Jean-Jacques quietly and efficiently bound the hands and feet of the three rogue agents.


None of this made the papers of course. It was all hushed up with a D-notice - in the national interest.

Monday, 29 May 2017

13. Dmitri's Drinks Party by Clair Wright

 “It says here, ‘finish it’.” That is all.  So that is what I propose to do, ladies and gentlemen.” Dmitri beams, and tucks the telegram back into his pocket.

The temperature seems to have risen by twenty degrees in the cabin, and it’s not only due to the afternoon sun piercing through the porthole windows.  The air is rapidly becoming fetid; sweat and fear overpowering the aroma of cigarette smoke.

At Dmitri’s signal, Johnson sits, perched on the edge of his seat as if ready to bolt. I wonder where he thinks he’s going to run to.  We are like rats in a trap in here. 

The curtain at the front of the cabin is pulled back and it takes me a moment to recognise Charlie Markman, cool in a crisp white pilot’s shirt, complete with epaulettes and braid. I stifle a smirk; this plane is an absolute crate.  Charlie nods at the Creightons and I see James bristle, his fingers gripping the arms of his seat.  Charlie sees it too and grins, before settling himself into the seat beside Johnson. He looks like he is enjoying himself. Johnson does not. That twitch is back.

Megan Creighton glances across to Vanderbilt, looking for what? Reassurance? A cue? His face is impassive, he looks resolutely forward.  She shifts in her seat, fiddles with the strap of her clutch bag. 

I can sense JJ behind me. I wish he was in my eye-line.  But he always seemed to know what I was thinking; it’s been a while but I’m counting on that.

Behind us I can hear a murmur of disquiet from the remaining passengers not party to this little stand-off. I wonder what they are thinking.

“Drinks, I think!” announces Dmitri, gesturing expansively as if he is a host at a cocktail party.  Valerie hands me a gin and tonic, with ice. Not a flicker of recognition.  

Megan downs her champagne in one and raises her glass for a refill. Dmitri laughs.  “Absolutely, Mrs Creighton!  Why not?” 

Johnson shakes his head as Valerie reaches his seat. He looks green.

“Are you not joining us, Mr Johnson? Do you insult me?” 

Johnson shakes his head, muttering, but Dmitri laughs again. 

Dmitri is enjoying this a little too much.  He was always something of a ham at Cambridge, hanging around with the Footlights crowd.  Perhaps our unexpected reunion has triggered some nostalgic longing. His little performance in my hotel room, whether for the benefit of Valerie or his charming side-kick, showed me he hasn’t lost any of his taste for a scene.  

I hope I can trust him. It was a gamble to contact him after our first encounter, but I needed to know where Valerie was and I guessed he could tell me.  He had recognised me too, but as I remarked on the phone, it didn’t stop him roughing me up. “The role required it,” was all he said by way of explanation. 

So far Dmitri has been as good as his word; Valerie is safe, and he got the visa for me. In return I hinted to him that the plans may not be all they seem. I’m not sure he believed me .How far can we stretch old loyalties?  He’s right of course, we all have our roles to play.  

Either way, I wish he would get to the point. The heat really is unbearable. 

The Creightons are up to something.  Megan has rested her head on James shoulder, as if for comfort. From my vantage point I can see her muttering out of the side of her mouth, James is inclining his head slightly to hear her. I glance towards Dmitri to see if he has noticed, but he is goading Johnson into drinking vodka with him.  

“Nobody move!” Megan shrieks; she’s up on her feet and waving a pistol wildly. She shuffles down the aisle, James behind her, and grabs Charlie Markman’s arm. She pushes the pistol into his temple. 

“Up!” She yanks him to his feet, and starts to pull him towards the front of the plane.  James pushes him from the rear, flicking nervous glances over the rest of us.  Charlie’s eyes are wide with a mix of shock and disbelief, he gives a weak laugh of embarrassment.  In the stifling silence I hear Dmitri put down his glass. 

“My dear Mrs Creighton, Mr Creighton, please sit down.” His tone is calm, reassuring even, but the Makarov pointing at the back of James’ head somewhat counters the effect.  “Don’t tell me, you are planning to make Mr Markman here fly us all to South Africa?  Surely you have understood by now that the game is over for you, and for your Uncle George there. You are really only here to make up the numbers. Now sit down!” He gestures with his gun and the Creightons slink back into their seats, Megan sobbing softly. Charlie straightens his shirt and returns to his seat. He gulps the remainder of Johnson’s vodka. 

“So ladies and gentlemen,” says Dmitri, toying with the Makarov. “Let us get down to business at last.”  He pauses, and surveys his audience.  “Let us be direct with one another, One, or maybe more than one of you, has the plans for the successful Comet 4 test flights. It would seem that all of us want them, but sadly that cannot be.” He shakes his head, looking mournfully at Johnson, who is sweating profusely.  

“So,” he continues, strolling up and down the aisle as he speaks, “now we have all had time to contemplate our situation, perhaps we can get to the bottom of this tricky case.  And to focus our minds, I propose this: one of you will die, every hour, until the plans - the complete plans - are handed to me.  Do you understand?”

He stops, by my seat. I look up at him, as he presses the muzzle of the gun into my chest.  “We have been here about an hour, already, wouldn’t you say, Alan?”

Behind me, I can hear JJ is holding his breath. Over Dmitri’s shoulder, Valerie is reaching into her jacket. Is this part of Dmitri’s game too?

Just then the door at the front of the plane swings open.