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Vast: A Novel
Ch. XXIII: A Ministering Angel

by Nicolas Travers

Colin spends much of Tuesday thinking about the future. He is perched in front of his wordprocessor, scanning ream after ream of Home Office press cuttings and speeches, and from time to time he punches key points onto his screen to form an interview agenda covering a broad sweep through law and order, with a particular eye to straightened police resources and demoralisation on the beat, not to mention climbing crime rates and growing public cynicism, and a neat little biographical note on Britain's first woman Home Secretary.

It is straightforward analytical work, and mostly pretty dull, and he daydreams as he highlights noteworthy bullet points. Dorothy has promised to meet him after work with a target list of suitable flats, preferably studios to keep costs down, and Twister has blessed the idea of Colin taking Friday off for home-hunting.

Colin's daydreams focus on this prospect of domesticity, and progress, transforming thoughts of a nice flat somewhere close by into a comfortable house, possibly somewhere between Shepherds Bush and Hammersmith, because he has always quite fancied the idea of becoming a citydweller, and he tentatively livens its rooms with the sound of very youthful voices. But youthful dream voices also conjure up memories of Sarah as a baby, and the memory is a sharp blow to his conscience, and an attack of remorse drives him quickly back to his keyboard.

His guilt is accusing. But paradoxically it is also profitable, for Twister is padding past as he begins to tap busily at his keyboard again, and is impressed, and offers to bring him a cup of coffee.

This is a definite mark of respect, and triggers a shockwave of gossip. Wendy - who has been a touch standoffish all morning - is completely taken aback. Colin is plainly now a star, and dirty old men obviously now rank as high fashion. She finds the thought most provoking, and shares her concerns with Valerie Sweetdreams, who listens, and retreats into herself, with an air of thoughtfulness that Wendy might have ascribed to chagrin, had she not ranked Valerie in a very much higher league than Richquick's deputy editor.

Colin's day advances impressively. Karim rings shortly before lunchtime, ecstatic about the Glotech feature. "It is brilliant, Colin, simply brilliant." He is giggling happily as he gushes. "The Sultan is most pleased, really most pleased - you have filled our most fond hopes, and you will be most well rewarded." He pauses, as though preparing to make a major announcement. "He is flying to London tomorrow for three or four days, for some meetings with ministers, that sort of thing, and it is possible we will have a little celebration at the Maroush, in the Edgware Road. It is one of his favourite places, very good food, with the most beautiful dancers after Cairo. Maybe we will also have a little press conference, on Monday perhaps, because rumours are starting to spread in the Singapore market."

Karim's voice takes on an arch note, and Colin wonders whether rumours have also started a run in the Sultan's share price. But Wendy is waving another telephone, and it is Baptiste, and Karim gives way in a happy babble of farewell.

Glotech's PR man is rather more laid back, but equally approving. "We think it's a very fine piece, very fine." His voice coos with the soft, feathery warmth of a contented dove. "We feel you took up our points very clearly, and very thoroughly, with just the right speculative flavour. The chairman wants you to come back - maybe next week - so we can thank you personally."

Colin visualises another fat envelope, and glows. But Twister is calling: Mark Tyler is waiting on yet another line.

The phone crackles a great deal, and Tyler's voice flows and ebbs in apologetic waves. "Sorry about the noise, I'm on the mobile again, they tape everything that goes through the switchboard." He speaks as though he spends half his life evading supervision.

"Just called to give you an update - we built some nice positions yesterday, found a Yankee seller in size, trying to pull in his horns because he'd been playing the wrong suit south of the Border, bought him out on a deferred deal. Then we cleaned up on a couple of Jap banks with liquidity ratios heading downhill, and mopped up some small forward parcels to give the price a bit of a shove: Singapore closed a dollar higher, our leverage is looking absolutely beautiful."

Colin listens, and replaces the telephone coolly, as though he shuffles millions every day of the week. Twister is hovering a couple of metres away, looking hopeful, obviously wanting to share any good news. But Colin is now a star, and decides that he must behave like a star. So he merely shakes his head, taps the side of his nose with his forefinger, smiles sphinxishly, and returns to law and order, even though in his heart he feels like leaping onto a table and executing a bad, mad sabre dance, and very possibly kicking holes in a computer terminal or two.

Twister is so impressed that he sends Wendy out to fetch doner kebabs from a nearby Lebanese restaurant for lunch, and Colin deigns to break off for a few moments to munch in company. But he also cites the Home Secretary as an excuse for declining to chat as he eats, for he must keep his mind totally focussed, and in the end Twister grows bored, and takes Wendy out for a drink.

Peace paves Colin's way to a speedy conclusion. He finalises his notes by just after two o'clock, and he is done. He thinks of strolling back to the hotel, but then decides to catch up on a handful of odd jobs that have been lying around, and brews up fresh coffee in the RichQuick cafetiere.

The telephone rings again. It is the Home Office.

"Sorry, old boy. Change of plans." The government voice is laconic. "The Minister can't do tomorrow any longer, something's come up."

Colin trembles uncontrollably, refusing to accept what he is hearing. It must be a mistake: he has been beavering away like a slave all morning, and has hyped himself up to a point where interviewing the Home Secretary rules his thinking - she is a target he is stalking, and a prey, and he is closing on her progressively as time ticks past, and he must have her.

"Are you there, old boy?" The voice is querulous, and it is plain that the cancellation has also disrupted a civil servant.

"I'm here." He racks his brain for a magic spell capable of putting things to rights. A small superstitious voice in his mind is whispering that this is a sign, and a harbinger of worse things to come, and he takes a deep breath, for it is a loss he must quickly remedy, must claw back, if he is to survive. "When will she do it?"

"Not sure, old boy." The voice is doubtful. "Somebody was supposed to be coming to see her today, and now they've switched. She's booked up solid for the next couple of months after that: the Sunday Times want to spread her across their magazine, we've pencilled in a date with the FT."

Colin hears these rival names, and wilts. RichQuick is being out-trumped, and his interview is heading for the scrapheap. He grasps desperately at a straw.

"What about the cancellation this afternoon?"

"This afternoon?" The voice on the telephone sounds taken aback. "I don't know, it was for half past three."

"How long?"

"An hour."

"Could you try her?" Colin's voice is pleading. "Please. I'll be there on the dot."

The telephone is grumpy. "I'll see what I can do." It clicks, and it is dead.

For a moment Colin quivers in a kind of panic, his mind in a whirl. He looks at his watch: he has just over an hour, and time enough to get to Whitehall, but the clock is ticking on inexorably. He starts printing off his notes, and decides to go the moment they are ready, taking a chance, and leave Twister an explanatory note. Wendy will have to switch the photographer booked to take pictures, or find another.

He scribbles madly as his printer churns out pages, checks his briefcase for spare cassettes and taperecorder batteries, swallows a last mouthful of coffee, and races for the lift.

The lift door opens and Twister and Wendy emerge. They both look as though they have been having a most convivial time.

Colin is impatient, almost desperate. "Must go." He glances at his watch, and speaks in short, sharp bursts. "Tomorrow has been scrapped, I may have a chance at half past three, I'm going on the off-chance."

Twister looks a little bewildered, but Wendy is immediately on the ball. "I'll switch the photographer."

"Or send another one."

She nods, but Colin is already in the lift, and the doors are closing, and he offers up a silent prayer as it goes down.

Government buildings are grey places, and the Home Office has an air of being just the right place for a Ministry of Prisons. Colin arrives with three minutes to spare, to find that a jovial porter with silver crowns on the lapels of his uniform jacket is expecting him.

"You'll find a gentleman, up the stairs, waiting for you." He beams, and beckons to a colleague, who politely searches Colin's briefcase, and then escorts him up a broad staircase. Two men are waiting in the hall at the top, a neat, neutral looking man in a dark suit, perhaps about the same age as Colin, and a denim-clad figure hung about with a great deal of camera equipment.

The neutral man glances at his watch. "You've just made it."

"Skin of my teeth." Colin beams. Suddenly everything is all right again - the interview is plainly going to go ahead, he is a star once more, and all his doubts and fears creep back into their crannies and crevices.

They set off in a small procession of three, with the photographer struggling along as a tail, and the neutral man briefs Colin en route.

"You can ask what you like, but for God's sake don't patronise - 'what's a girl like you doing in a job like this?' - sort of thing, or she'll throw you out."

"I'm not a male chauvinist."

The neutral man smiles thinly. "Who is, nowaways?"

He nods to a passing colleague, who inspects the small procession curiously, and stares at the photographer with deep suspicion. "And don't, whatever you do, call her by her first name. She may decide that she likes you, and call you Colin. But you must address her as 'Minister'."

"Or 'Home Secretary'?"

Another thin smile.

"Or 'Vicky'?"

The neutral man shivers perceptibly. "I think, if you did that, the building would crack, and the heavens would sunder, and we would both burn for all eternity."

He stops at a door, and ushers Colin and the photographer into a small room busy with three women tapping hard at keyboards. Colin watches him disappear through a second door, and buttonholes the photographer.

"One portrait, then I start asking questions, and you do your action pics." It is a necessary precaution - he has crossed swords with photographers in the past, and once lost ten minutes of valuable interview time to a kind of beauty parade in which photographer and subject had danced a mutually admiring polka, whilst ignoring Colin completely.

The photographer shrugs. He has taken more pictures of more celebrities than this bleeding writer has had hot dinners, and he will take what he wants to take.

The neutral man returns, looking pleased with himself. "She's in a good mood - I think she was as browned off as you were to have her afternoon upset."

"But still not 'Vicky'?" Colin's voice is little more than a whisper.

The neutral man twitches. But they are already in a very large room, hung with huge oils of past Home Secretaries. A fairhaired woman in her early fifties is standing by a window, inconspicuously smart in a dark grey tailored coat and skirt, with a blue silk blouse cut like a man's shirt, and a small spray of diamonds fashioned in the manner of a bunch of flowers on her lapel.

She smiles, a model smile, displaying good teeth, and Colin notices that she has attractive blue, or blue-grey, eyes as she turns towards to shake hands, and he makes eyes at her, despite himself, and she frowns slightly, as if rebuking him for being so forward, and lets go of his hand quickly.

The photographer is already busy setting up equipment, and Colin hurries through his opening patter, to get a good show on the road.

"I'm hoping you'll talk to me about the framework you seek to develop for law and order, ma'am, and then provide some guidelines on putting your ideas into practice, through policing, and penalties, prisons, and parental responsibility, and creating a sense of communal responsibility, maintaining public morality, and that sort of thing, and then look to the way you expect society to develop in the future."

The Home Secretary cocks her head to one side, and looks judicious, and Colin has a distinct feeling that she is presenting her best profile to the photographer, who is now ready for action.

"You don't seem to regard public morality very highly, Mr. Vast, if it's only 'that sort of thing' to you." Blue eyes are schoolmistressy, and a little scornful.

Colin starts to mumble an excuse, but a slim hand waves it aside.

"We feel, in this ministry - and, may I say, in this government - that public morality is the cornerstone of a responsible society." Victoria Smuggleigh, recently promoted into the top ranks of power, and tipped by some as a future premier, begins to reel off a detailed catalogue of government measures designed to make Britain love honesty more sincerely.

The photographer darts about as she speaks, photographing her first from one angle, and then another, and Colin notes that whilst she appears to pay no attention, she always manages to strike just the right note as he shoots. He also has a suspicion that she is telling him nothing new, and his mental clock is ticking on fast - he has mentally allotted three ten-to-fifteen minute blocks for framework, administration, and communal responsibility, plus some time at the end for controversy, and he needs some strong quotes.

However an attempt to harvest better results from policing and the administration of justice proves equally deadening. Blue eyes flatly reject all thoughts that this minister or her colleagues may ever err - sharp corners may from time to time need sanding, but authority is benevolent, and kind, and allegations of clumsiness, and hamfistedness, and incompetence, are vile slanders.

Colin has a strange sensation of wading through a sea of treacle. Government - and particularly the Home Office - is performing a marvelous job with tight resources. Brilliant men and women are drafting brilliant laws for administration by devoted public servants, and making Britain an increasingly wonderful country in which to live.

"Crime statistics are falling, and it is quite scurrilous to suggest that policemen have been keeping their notebooks shut." The Home Secretary's eyes flash, and Colin has a distinct sensation that she would not object, if backed by a suitable law, to locking scurrilous journalists in special camps in the Outer Hebrides, or possibly sending them by suitably lethal injections to even more definitive fates.

"We are focussing on youth crime, because that where crime first infects the community, and particularly on drug-related youth crime." The photographer has completed his work, and she is now a little less posed in her gestures. "We believe the family is the bedrock of society, and we want to strengthen that foundation. We want to shield our young people from crime, and punish most severely those who seek to corrupt them."

Colin thinks of Dorothy's document case, and hopes that it has gone back to Windsor. But he must tempt this woman out into the open, away from her platitudes, and he launches an attack.

"But, ma'am. Some people say government is destroying family life, and rotting down the fabric of society. More divorces, easier divorces, better tax breaks for people who don't marry, sanctions that prevent the police and schools from disciplining young people, sliding standards of honesty in public life."

He waits hopefully for a crack to appear. But the Home Secretary merely smiles.

"Oh, no - that's all very foolish talk, Colin." Now the blue eyes are coaxing. "We can't make people stay married when they don't want to be married."

This shaft hits Colin fairly and squarely, and he looks away, marshalling his resources. "But punishment seems to have gone out of fashion."

"No, Colin." His accusation is smoothly and sweetly rejected. "We still believe in punishing wrongdoers. But we want to help them earn their way back into society. We can help tame wild young teenagers..."

"Even when they beat up old age pensioners?"

"Even when they beat up old age pensioners." The Home Secretary's voice is soothing. "Violence can be controlled, rechannelled."

Now it is Colin's turn to be scornful. "So everyone can be cured?"

"Most offenders can be rehabilitated. Maybe some, a hard core, can't - people who corrupt youth, pornographers, drug-dealers again. Perhaps they need special treatment. But we're moving towards a position where we will be able to deal much more effectively with those."

Colin shivers. "How?"

"Oh, my experts tell me a lot of those deviations may be controlled by dedicated therapies. We're looking at hormone therapies for men who prey on under-age girls, they could be quite promising."

The photographer catches his breath. "Chemical castration."

Colin swallows hard. "Really?"

"Well, your colleague put it rather strongly, Colin, he was a little over the top." Blue eyes twinkle, and a slim hand makes a calming gesture. "But it is a thought - we could offer offenders a choice, voluntary therapy instead of criminal proceedings, and conviction, and imprisonment. I'm sure we could persuade sensible men to make sensible choices."

The neutral man glances at his watch, and it is a sign that it is nearly time to end. Colin can feel cold sweat coursing down the small of his back.

"Do you have definite plans?"

"We might try a pilot scheme, here in London."

"With mad scientists taking over from judges?"

The Home Secretary laughs out loud, and it is pleasant and innocent sound, as clear as a bell. "Oh, dear me, no. We have the best medical brains in the country helping us, Colin. We want to do the best we can, the very best."

It is an ending, and a dismissal. The photographer gathers up his equipment, the neutral man opens the door, and blue eyes smile in farewell. Colin makes eyes again, but this time rather more shyly, and a flicker of response seems to flash at him, and he is out in the corridor again.

"Went well." The neutral man murmurs a judgement. "She's very quotable - she likes to present herself as a ministering angel."

Colin has a vision of a winged figure. But his vision is carved in stone, and decorating a tombstone, and it has the fearful beauty of the Angel of Death.

To Be Continued...

 

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