A gap bridged

ISOBEL FELT SHE had been with the service all her life. When she first joined, she and the other members of the team she worked with were quartered in an old Victorian building, just off London’s Embankment. She began as a secretary, straight from university. “To think I went through a university education to be doing this”, she used to mutter to herself.

But things changed. She progressed slowly and began filing confidential documents. As she became more and more important, it wasn’t long before she was in the field, learning how to be a fully fledged spy. And they all moved into a brand-new building next to Vauxhall Bridge.

Life was looking up. But she longed to be abroad.

Eventually posted to Moscow, she decided to stay there when she retired. She rather liked the anonymity the city offered her Even the austere and massive buildings put up by Stalin were appealing to her. The fact that their scale was something to do with making the people feel small and unimportant had not escaped her, but it never troubled her. Some of them looked like prisons. Others, including St Basil’s famous cathedral near The Kremlin, looked as if they’d been designed by refugees from Disneyland’s studios. The variety amused her.

And she liked the parks. There weren’t very many, but those she knew were peaceful havens of tranquillity; pleasant places which allowed her to escape the dreariness of Moscow in her younger days, and the city’s bustle in her later years.

She hadn’t wanted to work for anybody, or run any errands, when she retired. She was quite content in the placidity of her suburb, and to ride the metro on cold days. Some of the downtown stations were like cathedrals or fashionable hotel lobbies, built in the Stalin era, when Uncle Joe believed that the people should have the best.Moscow Metro

She also enjoyed staying at home whenever she felt like it.

It took some persuading on the part of her old boss to get her to carry out one last mission, to hand over a loosely wrapped package, which she assumed contained something of value. Or, at least, of value to the service.

Following instructions as she always did, she arrived at the river crossing she’d been told about. Curiously, the bridge in front of her didn’t seem to go anywhere. There wasn’t much at this end and there seemed even less at the other.The Bridge

She checked things over in her mind, going over what her contact had told her. She was sure she had come along the right road, and was here at the right time, just as instructed. It was the right day, she had come to the right place. But there was no one around. She didn’t panic – it wasn’t in her nature – but she was somewhat confused. It was all a little odd; as if the world, and her instructions, had turned themselves upside down without warning her.

She was gazing across the river, lost in thought about what what might be over there, when the bushes behind her began to rustle. She wheeled round, instantly alert.

A man emerged who didn’t look like a go-between to her eye, let alone a spy. No overcoat. No homburg hat. Instead, a bomber jacket and jeans. ‘Ordinary’ was how she’d describe him later.

“You have the package?”, he muttered, showing her some kind of badge.

A little scared now, she handed him the loosely wrapped package. She felt oddly less emotional than if she was handing a birthday gift to her father. He took it and turned away, disappearing into the bushes without another word passing between them.

‘Bloody rude’, she thought. He could at least have thanked her.

A moment or two later, she heard footsteps on the bridge above her. Someone was going over to goodness knows where or what was on the other side.

Shrugging, she wondered why she should care. After all, she wasn’t going to do anything like this again. No matter if her old boss did ask her to bridge the gap.

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Constables country

ANDREW HAD ALWAYS been a keen photographer. He never went anywhere without a camera. One had become a part of him. Anything from a point-and-shoot number to some full-blown SLR digital kit.

Today, as so often, he first saw the scene out of the corner of his eye.

‘I ought to capture that’, he thought, having begun to think he was quite something in the world of landscape photography.

He drove on for a mile or so, hoping to get a better view of the scene, but the hedges were too high for him. And, anyway, he had to pay attention. He’d given himself a fright earlier on by only just missing a huge tractor driven at what he thought was break-neck speed by an evil-looking, older man. It had come thundering round a corner with a massive trailer in tow.

Nevertheless, he pulled off the road, cut the car’s engine and searched for his camera. He knew he’d couldn’t miss an opportunity like this; he’d have to walk back and take a picture of the view.

He began his lonely journey. The hedges didn’t seem to be any lower. If anything, they were higher than he remembered them. After a while he came to a turning off the road.

He didn’t recall it as he’d driven by. But then, he’d been paying attention and probably hadn’t noticed anything except the road in front of him. He guessed the lane would’ve been off to his right, going slightly backwards as well, and thus easy to miss. The hedges were lower here, so he thought he’d take a chance. He hoped he’d see something off to his left. He remembered that the scene seemed to have something else growing in front of it. That’s what he was looking for.

He walked on. The fields were flat on either side of the road, carpeted with yellow and white flowers. Birdsong was all around. ‘How idyllic’, he thought. There ought to be a cow or two around, but he wasn’t one to complain. Blue Sky Day

At the end of the lane he saw a shop, slightly above the main track and a little off to his right. Three people were standing outside, gossiping. Two turned to look at him, one raising her hand to shield her eyes against the sun as it lowered itself into the far horizon.

Despite his careful description, none of them could recall the scene, or locate it anywhere. There were so many like it round there.

Realising the truth in what they said, and that he would never be able to make anything new out of what was around him, he knew he would just have to go back to the car and pick up his journey from where he had stopped.

A few hundred yards from his destination, he heard two gunshots. ‘Probably some farmers, killing rabbits or some other vermin’, he thought. ‘Although this is an odd time of day to be doing that.’

As he turned a corner, he saw his vehicle up ahead.

It looked a little sorry for itself, leaning almost into the ditch that ran alongside the road. He wasn’t worried; he had gambled on that earlier, when he parked up, so he wasn’t surprised to see it lurching to the right a little.

As he opened the car door to get in, he saw that the front right-hand tyre was flat. ‘Must’ve run over a nail, or something’, he thought, as he reigned himself to changing the wheel.

Then he noticed the two neat holes in the tyre.

‘Bloody farmers’, he thought.’Always thinking they can take the law into their own hands.’

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Out of action

My posts have been somewhat erratic these last few months.

That’s because I’ve been in and out of hospital. Indeed, my poor wife must know the route from Budleigh Salterton to the Royal Devon & Exeter hospital like the back of her hand, we’ve been there so often. Still, she doesn’t complain. I just have to put up with the potholes en route.

We have a few weeks ‘off’ now, with the next visit likely to be to Plymouth to see an immunologist. We plan to go by train.

Don’t ask me to explain why I’m seeing so many ologists. It would take too long. It’s enough to say that the last haematologist I saw said I was suffering from a ‘chronic blood disorder’ and that nothing in the blood tests told him what that disorder was, or is.

I expect other people are suffering in a similar way, so I’ll stop moaning and get on with it.

Whatever ‘it’ is.

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What if …

Big BenWhat if the British Government was competent enough to, and capable of, managing the economy and bringing an end to austerity?

What if the same government was capable to negotiating a smooth transition from European Union membership to political and economic independence from the EU?

What if the same government could manage the NHS and its care services without thinking that ‘NHS’ was just a set of letters and instead realising that it means ‘National Health Service’?

What if the same government could solve what is often called the ‘housing crisis’ and give young people a degree of independence  and a chance living away from their parents and grandparents?

What if the same government could do something about Britain’s infrastructure and fix the potholes in all the roads?

What if the same government knew about life outside the ‘Westminster village’?

What if the same British government could find a way of operating without fighting itself?

Fat chance.

 

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Birth

THEY WERE NESTLED quietly in the Norfolk reeds, gazing at the broad expanse of water beyond them. They weren’t talking.

“How come you’re so white?” he suddenly blurted out.

She looked out across the water, as if recalling a dream, and sighed. “It’s a long story”, his mother replied, giving him a look as if to say: ‘Why d’you ask?’

“All right, you don’t have to answer that one,” she smiled. “Anyway, you didn’t hear what I said. So I’ll tell you, if I must, so long as you keep still for a while and pay attention.”

“Please. I want to know.”

“It’s quite a story, so don’t interrupt the way you usually do.”

She looked out across the water again.

“It begins with us having to fly a long way north. It took days to get there; the journey seemed to go on forever and ever to me. And I wasn’t alone in thinking like this.

“Eventually, we saw a lake in the mountains. It was lying in a bowl of pure whiteness surrounded by reed beds.” ‘If only we could be as white, we’d be acceptable’, I thought.

“Everything was covered in snow. It was all white, except for us. We would always stand out as we were, even against the drab murkiness of the reed beds.

“Nevertheless, we decided this was the place for us, so we flew down to the lakeside, to rest up after the long journey, and settled ourselves there for the night. It was very peaceful and quiet. Almost unusually so. Almost deathly quiet. It wasn’t long before we were asleep.

“When I first woke it was dark. That didn’t bother me too much – darkness has never frightened me – and I was soon asleep again.

“The next time I woke, it was broad daylight and, as I looked around, I saw that we were all losing that greyness, the same as you have at the moment.

“You can imagine; I was quiet alarmed. Things like this didn’t happen to us.”

Her listener, paying intense attention for a change, made little or nothing of her remark.

“After a while,” she went on, “it seemed to be natural and I didn’t panic, as you might think. We were all losing our greyness, and no one was in pain, so it seemed OK to me.

“The rest of the day went off quietly. We weren’t disturbed, neither did we make a lot of noise.

“At dusk, I thought I saw a movement on the far side of the lake. The reeds parted and I fully expected to see a gamekeeper come out, with a shotgun. ‘Good heavens, I thought. What’s going to happen next!’ But no one appeared.

“Instead, I saw a black swan at the head of what looked like a flotilla of nearly all black birds. Cormorants, I guessed.

“Now I really was alarmed. This was an alien group, or at least a different species.

“Then, quite suddenly and without any warning, the whole flock took off and, wheeling round against the white, snowy mountainous backdrop, flew away and were very soon out of sight.”

Now her listener did begin to agitate. “Well, what happened next?”

His mother, puling herself together, said: “The sound of all those birds taking off had woken everybody.

“We weren’t all white, but nearly so. I suppose we didn’t know what to do.

“Then one of our number, who seemed to be in charge, rushed out of the safety of the reeds and took off, flying vaguely southwards, towards home.

“Just like sky-borne sheep, we all followed and were soon flying southwards.

“Everything went well, except that we got lost and ended up on the shores of the Black Sea, where – as you may guess – we all turned black.

“We took off, once more heading home.

“When we eventually arrived I noticed that we’d all turned white.

“Funny, that, nothing had happened during our flight.

“But there you have it. That’s why I’m white and you’re not. You haven’t yet been to the lake in the north!”

For few moments he said nothing.

“How far is it?” he blurted out. “This lake in the north.”

“Oh, not so far that you couldn’t get there. The only trouble is, I can’t remember what it’s called. Or how to get there quickly.”

“I’ll find it,” he said, full of bravado. “And, just you wait, when I come back I’ll be white as the driven snow.”

She laughed. “I hope the snow hasn’t been driven too much!”

He shuffled out of the reed bed and took off, unaware that he had been joined by several others.

Together, they flew northwards, his mother giving a sigh as if to say: ‘Hotheads.’

A while later – he didn’t know how long – he spotted a lake lying in a fold in the mountains. It was the only dark smudge on the white landscape.

‘This must be the place,’ he thought, as he swopped down to land on the surface with much splashing, leaving a small wake behind him.

Looking around, he spotted some reed beds, which must have been those his mother rested in.

“I’ll rest here a while and see if anything happens.”

He was soon asleep, and slept for the rest of that night. When he awoke it was broad daylight. He looked around to see that nothing had changed, not even the colour of his feathers had worn when he left the place he called home.

The rest of that day passed off quietly. He and his comrades made little or no noise, as if they knew something was going to happen and had to stay silent to be ready for whatever it was.

At dusk, just as his mother had before him, he thought he saw the reed beds stir on the other side of the lake. He drew breath, and then gave a start.

He was looking at a lone black swan.

He and his comrades immediately took off and, without a backward glance, set off towards home.

Back among the safety of the Norfolk reeds, he settled and blinked as he saw a small boat pass by, no doubt headed home, its grubby white sails tinged pink by the dying light of the sun.

By his side, his mother laughed quietly to herself.

“What’s so funny?” he gasped.

“You should see yourself, and all the others.”

He looked down at himself, and then at the others.

Everyone was quite white.

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More obfuscation

There hasn’t been much said about Brexit in the last couple of weeks or so,  mercifully.

But that hasn’t stopped the present administration from uttering platitudes while implementing some pretty harsh legislation.

What are we to do with them?

You only have to look into their eyes to know that, when they speak, they don’t really believe a word of what they say. They’re mouthing from pre-written texts. So, platitudes cover up a multitude of sins against the populace.

Of course, if you’re one of them, and that means an MP or just a sympathiser, you’ll be used to this and not take any notice. Politicians have been ‘economical with the truth’ ever since the phrase was first coined, and before then. And they show no signs of changing their ways.

But what do you do if you don’t like what you hear?

You can’t really turn a blind eye or deaf ear, or can you – do you?

You can’t really shrug and say “It was ever thus” and let the half-truths roll on and on. Maybe you do, and may be it was.

Perhaps the answer is: we ought to care more about what they say and do, so that they only say what they are going to do.

But that requires politicians to be honest. And it’s a very long time since I met one of those in the flesh.

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They’re at it again

It never seems to stop.

The Conservatives are still blethering on as if they’ve all read the same hymn sheet.

Mrs May seems to be singing the Anglican tune.

Boris Johnson is warbling from a High Anglican, almost Catholic, book.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, seems to constantly refer to the Methodist Hymnal.

David Davis, meanwhile, sings from whichever hymnal suits him.

I wish they would decide on a single tune, or at least the same book of hymns, so that the rest of us could make out what they do believe.

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Still at it, after all this time

You can understand 27 European leaders being at loggerheads over Britain’s terms for leaving the European Union. They’ve all got their own agendas, so they couldn’t agree.

But Britain’s Tory party?

Come on … surely they can have a party line, and stick to it.

But no. They’re still arguing among themselves over what kind of Britain they want to see outside the European Union, after years of doing so. In the last few days alone they’ve been at it again. This time, the Chancellor seems to have put his foot in it. Poor man.

Who’d be a politician, eh? You’re damned if you say one thing and damned if you say another. You’re compromising yourself at all times.

I wouldn’t do it.

Why doesn’t he shut up

It’s only days ago that Tony Blair was interviewed in The Guardian by Decca Aitkenhead, when that paper devoted a whole page to the pair of them.

What a waste of space!

He had nothing to say, other than that we should all follow our consciences. He contends that we have been bamboozled into Brexit by a government – or by the Tories if you follow his line of thought – who have no time for anything else. Not the housing crisis. Nor the poverty gap. Or the north south divide. Nor dealing with the Grenfell Tower disaster.

How obvious is all that!

The Tories have devoted no time at all to anything other than badly handling our leaving the EU, and most of the press has colluded with them in talking about it. As a result, we all think that that is all that matters.

What piffle! It’s enough that no one says that, once we leave the EU, almost everyone will be saying: “We never had it so good.” The rightwing newspapers will be crying into their cups, because when we have to deal as an independent nation with France, or Germany or the Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese or Italians, we shall get no more special treatment than if we were Ugandans or Indians. Indeed, we may get less, because we have no natural resources to trade with.

Tony Blair may have been Prime Minister, but that doesn’t give him the right to believe it’s he and he alone that occupies the moral high ground.

Why doesn’t he slink away and shut up, like any good ex-Prime Minister should?

But then, Ms Aitkenhead wouldn’t have anyone to interview.

 

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What are they up to now?

It seems not a day goes by when the British government manages to put its foot in it.

Only the other day they demonstrated how inept they are by disagreeing amongst themselves on how much it will costs Britain to leave the EU.

On top of that, they seem to think they can do what they like and no one else will pay any attention. Don’t they realise that the EU has 27 other members, all of whom have to agree with each other before anything is passed into law?

‘Arrogance’, some call it. To me, it smacks of sheer incompetence born of the idea that no one knows best expect aunty. And she doesn’t even know what day it is!

The sooner we are over all this, the better it will be. Then we shall be able to live with whatever character Britain has when it is past this muddle and confusion.

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