Chapter 1 - Secret, Never to be Told by A.J. Hall
Patrick heard the buzz of the front door bell dimly, through algebra-clotted ears. For this relief much thanks; at this hour it could hardly be anyone but Uncle Alex, which meant they would be coming in here, which would certainly justify his making the fire up properly. Even with that repellent smokeless stuff, one could get a proper blaze going with a bit of effort. If it hadn’t been for his mother’s pointed remarks at breakfast about wasteful louts and the need to order in another hundred-weight of coal a fortnight before she’d planned, he’d have done it earlier.
Indeed, a moment or so later his father and Uncle Alex did enter, the latter rubbing his hands together and blowing on them in a way that suggested the weather outside hadn’t got any better.
“Drink, Alex?” his father said, walking straight to the cabinet as if the answer were a foregone conclusion.
“Please. No soda and only the smallest splash of water — ah, perfect. Good health.”
“So how were our friends in Moscow?”
“Well, the Cold War remains relatively chilly — for now. Speaking of which, Patrick, you couldn’t see your way to putting some more coal on that fire, for your old uncle’s sake? I don’t think I’ve been properly warm in three weeks.”
His father grinned. “I’d hope it would a bit warmer here than Moscow, but Helena’s been bending my ear about putting in central heating since October: ‘Mariot Chase may get a trifle Scott of the Antarctic at times, darling, but one expects more home comforts in an Edwardian villa.’ One minor downside of buying a London house from a saltwater-in-the-blood Naval family.”
“Ah.” Uncle Alex took a swig of whisky and, wholly uncharacteristically, topped up again from the decanter without asking. This time he ignored the water jug. “Another black mark against the Navy.”
Patrick, kneeling on the hearth-rug, pricked up his ears. Between travel-weariness, warmth and whisky, chances were it was one of those times Uncle Alec might get onto the really hush-hush stuff — if only neither he nor Pa decided to boot him out —
Coal-scuttle and tongs back in place, he scurried back to his prep, making as if massively absorbed in the last three problems — bloody Euclid; for mine own part, it was Greek to me (and why did no-one ever think of Casca as a comic part? He was a sight funnier — at least, when they played it properly, deadpan — than all those ghastly porters and gravediggers, who clearly thought it was massively hilarious to keep saying “cock” or its Elizabethan equivalent over and over again, as if they were prep-school age and the audience likewise —)
He’d missed a bit — something about delivering a package? But “package” was one of Uncle Alex’s special words, like “treasure” or “asset”. Euclid and Shakespeare slid into the abyss.
“Whatever does happen, they’ve done worse to others in their time. Without remorse. And would have done again, if not stopped,” his father said, sounding as if trying to convince himself rather than anyone else.
“True enough.” Uncle Alex took another swig of whisky. “And the exchange rate affords some compensation.”
“The usual. Another lot of loose ends left trailing, until someone else trips over them and comes a cropper. Frankly, Anthony, this time Naval Intelligence dropped a major bollock —” He swallowed, and came to an abrupt stop.
Part boiling fury, part simmering, reluctant hilarity, Patrick picked up his compasses and described a perfect, perfectly irrelevant, 180 degree arc across the top half of the exercise book. How pathetically — how absolutely absurd —
“I think the boy’s chaste ears can stand it, just,” his father said. “Though, Pat, if you’re to stay, ‘don’t repeat or refer, pain of death’ covers both substance and form. Savvy?”
“Savvy,” he muttered, scarlet to the ears.
Uncle Alex sighed. “Apologies all round. Well, to use rather more parliamentary language, we’d have been even more in the soup if it hadn’t been for two strokes of completely undeserved luck.”
“Including that the treasonous young idiot chose to go swimming with depth charges rather than come home and face trial?”
Patrick collided with a juddering shock against “treasonous” followed by “go swimming with depth charges”: Rupert — they shan’t take me alive —
Only for whomever they were talking about it had been real, not Gondal, and from the contempt in his father’s voice he plainly rated the suicide far more heinous than the treason. Which, of course, aligned with the Church’s view, but he hadn’t expected his father to sound so — so personal about it.
“Actually, Anthony, that wasn’t what I had in mind by ‘luck’. Especially since — you may as well know this now as next week, but I understand Sir Charles has written to his Member again. And this time he’s managed to get the man to take him seriously. There’s talk of a Question. I shouldn’t know — not our department, officially — but since I was already up to my neck in tidying up the other end, someone gave me a tip-off. And I gather you may get dragged into it.”
“Me? You know perfectly well I can’t go butting into someone else’s constituency. If Carstairs is hell-bent on raising a Question, it’s the Whips’ problem. Look here, Alex, he may be making your life harder than it need be, but Sir Charles has lost his son, after all. So if he’s got a bee in his bonnet that one of our Naval vessels wasn’t where it should have been during an exercise, and some trigger-happy junior gunnery officer managed to sink a civilian yacht by accident and no-one’s admitting it — well, all I can say is that someone at the Admiralty should have had the gumption to haul him into their office and tell him yes there’s been a cover-up, and it’s in everyone’s interests he should go along with it and why. Ever met Sir Charles?”
“Lucky. We have the misfortune to be on the same club committee. Wine. He’s a pre-War relict if ever you saw one. Stiff as a turtle’s underbelly, and thinks the Tories slid dangerously to the left when Disraeli pushed through the Second Reform Act. Hardly surprising his son went to the other extreme, come to think of it. Anyway, if the choice were between the boy at the bottom of the Channel or rubbing shoulders with the likes of Guy Burgess in Moscow, Sir Charles would’ve opened the sea-cocks himself.”
“Oh, Burgess.” Uncle Alex looked so last-strawish it was almost funny. “This you will not believe. We — the PM’s delegation — actually got approached. By Burgess. In Moscow.”
“Really? What on earth for?”
Uncle Alec made a face, and drained his glass. “He wants to come home.”
“I bet he does. But —”
“I don’t doubt the Russians could be persuaded — you know that old saw about guests and fish? And they’ve had to put with him since ‘51. Whether the exchange rate would be worth it — it might have been different if the Kontoradmiral hadn’t died of wounds, or if the lieutenant — Well, anyway. His mother’s ill and he wants to come home — no, let’s go back to the beginning. They chose me to meet him — why, I cannot imagine, I was hardly going begin with cosy reminiscences of making toast in his study, and go on to charm the names of his remaining co-conspirators out of him in a warm and muzzy glow of old-school chummery.”
“It does, indeed, seem unlikely,” Patrick’s father said, topping up the tumblers.
“And so I went to this ghastly, seedy little cafe — it reeked of sweat and cheap cigarettes and I think they’d made the coffee out of ground-up car tyres, roasted. And he turned up three-quarters of an hour after the time we’d agreed, stinking of vodka — mind you, having tasted the coffee by that time, I was not entirely unsympathetic about that — wearing a Savile Row suit with quite the most amateurish darn you’ve even seen on his left knee and and an egg-stained OE tie — it really was the most pathetic spectacle you could imagine.”
“Oh, I told him no. No deal. From the FO’s point of view he’s far less trouble where he is. But that’s something I wouldn’t be surprised if my opposite number in the Kremlin has worked out, too. So if they did decide to tweak our tails and send him home ‘on compassionate grounds’ it’d give us one hell of a dilemma. Strictly between these four walls, whatever we suspect, I’m not sure what we could prove would be enough to make a treason charge stick. And you can imagine how either not trying him at all or not getting a conviction could be made to look.”
Patrick’s father swirled the liquid in his glass.
“There are other possible charges.”
Uncle Alex gave a brief, shocked huff, somewhere between a laugh and a gasp. “There’s quite a difference between tying off loose ends, and pulling them as hard as you can, to see what unravels. Speaking of which, how’s the session been? How did the Unruly Member for North Devon perform on his maiden outing?”
“I think,” his father said, choosing his words with care, “so far it’s been rather like watching a high-wire act at the circus. A complete toss-up whether he ends up in Number Ten or in gaol, but bound to be spectacular either way. Anyway, Alec, can I offer you anything to eat? I take it the food in Moscow wasn’t notably better than the coffee?”
“Actually, now you mention it, I literally cannot remember when I ate last. A crust would be most acceptable, thanks.”
“I hope we can do better than that —” Both rose. The door closed behind them.
Patrick stared into the fire, which had collapsed into the fiery caverns stage.
How most peculiar, that real-life people did actually choose death rather than treason charges, and how even more peculiar that it had never even occurred to him to wonder about the mess that left everyone else sorting out afterwards.
Even though he (as the Regent) had forced himself (as Rupert) to write a letter to his (Rupert’s) parents incriminating himself, he’d never thought of the parents as real, not even as Gondal-real. They’d just been — a line that needed to be drawn in, so as to make a particular figure symmetrical. (Oh, glory. Three problems in Euclid to be worked out before nine a.m tomorrow, and he didn’t have a clue about any of them.)
Which would this Sir Charles prefer, if he could be given the choice? Going to his grave believing his son to be the victim of a colossal cock-up on the Navy’s part? Or being told the truth, even such a truth?
Problem was, once you opted for truth it was too late to withdraw if you found you’d made a mistake, and you never could predict when people really wanted to know things and when they were just saying. Take, f’rinstance, how Peter had gone off the handle at finding out about what a low-down type his Malise had been, whereas it was quite clear Nicola took the view that the more grime on the ancestral scutcheon, the more romantic — though a son was, he supposed, a touch different from one’s sideways ancestor from 1645.
Patrick grinned, imagining Peter and Nicola in the room with him — it had, after all, been the Marlow sitting room hardly more than six months ago (and how utterly clottish of Ma, going round shooting her mouth off about needing central heating and the casements replaced; think what a hoo-hah there’d be if that got back to Trennels. And that sort of thing always did get back. When he’d first started hunting, Sellars had told him if he came across a wired-up gap to tell one of the Hunt servants, pronto, but not to go whining to all and sundry about ham-fisted oiks who couldn’t be bothered to mend their fences properly; round Wadebridge, you always found you were talking to their second cousin or worse. Which Pa, overhearing, had endorsed as excellent advice, and not to be limited to Wadebridge and wire.)
But it would have been fun teasing them both about the Navy’s colossal cock-up, whatever it had really been — particularly Nicola, who regarded the honour of the RN, past, present and future to be her Most Particular Charge and Care. Not that he would, of course: don’t repeat or refer, pain of death. As if Pa had actually needed to remind him.
No, Patrick reflected, drawing the text-book towards him and turning, belatedly, to Euclid. There weresome secrets just too good ever to be told.