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Jack the Lad

I hate prologues, prefaces, and introductions.  I never read any of them. So, of course, I am writing a prologue. 
   To-day is still Sunday, 18 June 1944. It’s night now, and up until this morning, I had a small flat in London, just off Horseferry Road. I spend most of my time in New York these days, but having my own place here is very agreeable. Or was. 
   'Bodyguard'  has taken up a lot of my time for the last while, but obviously, that’s wrapped up.  I crooked my walking stick over my arm, carefully locked the door to my flat and turned to walk to the stairs. Mrs Buttons was just coming up as I started down. She was already holding her latchkey.
   ‘Good morning,’ she smiled. She struggled for my name.
   ‘Good morning, Mrs Buttons. Been to church?’ She was wearing the only decent dress that remained in her closet after the five years of privations war had brought us all.
   ‘The early service,’ she called back as she headed for her door. ‘You’ll pardon me for not stopping, but I’ve got to feed the cat and then meet some friends for lunch.’
   She opened her door and disappeared.  As I walked down the stairs, I thought about Mrs Buttons and her cat. Not an easy thing to feed, not these days. I liked Mrs Buttons. In fact, I had used ‘button’ as a codename for my best agent.  The incongruity had made me smile.
   I entered Rutherford Street. It was early enough, so I decided to walk over to the War Office in Whitehall, where I was going to meet Alan Brooke  for lunch and a little needling. The Canadian First Hussars was the only Allied force to actually attain its stated objective on D-Day. He’ll hate that. The War Office was buzzing with people, even though it was Sunday. The War didn’t stand on ceremony.
   Brooke’s secretary was a pretty young ATS lieutenant.  She stood and crossed to me as I closed the door behind me. She took my trilby and hung it on the stand. She motioned me to one of the big green leather club chairs arranged around the perimeter of the room. ‘The Field Marshal will be just a few minutes, General Torrance.’
   ‘You’re new,’ I offered.
   With that mix of pity and kindness the young reserve for the old: ‘I’ve been here a few months, now.’
   ‘You enjoy working for Brookie?’
   A grin slipped out as the intercom on her desk buzzed. ‘The Field Marshal is ready now, sir.’
I got up and opened the door to the inner office. Brooke snorted and shook my hand. ‘Sit down, Jack.’ 
   As I did, the familiar wail of the air raid siren began. He looked over his glasses at me.  ‘Did you want to go down?’ 
   ‘No, thanks,’ I said.
   ‘Your First Hussars made a go of it,’ he said, cocking his head back and peering down his nose through his thick round spectacles.
   ‘They did, indeed. And apparently, you won’t even let me rub it in.’
   ‘Flanking manoeuvre. Anyway, you’re too late. Crerar  already did. Hodie Non Cras,’ he snorted.
   ‘To-day, not to-morrow.’ The regimental motto hadn’t occurred to me, but clearly it had to Crerar.
   ‘Besides which, it’s not your regiment before you claim it. No more than the other half dozen you’ve belonged to when it was convenient. Let me just sign these. We’ll head out after the All Clear.’ Brooke returned to his desk.    ‘I’m not really here,’ he cautioned as he scribbled. ‘I was home last night, but the AA  woke me up in the middle of the night.’
   ‘The pilotless plane attacks,’ I surmised.
   ‘Yes. I couldn’t sleep, so I drove in to get a few things done before I met you. Don’t tell Benita.’
   ‘Won’t she notice?’
   ‘She’s got her sister visiting. She’ll just think I left early to pick you up.’
I got up and walked to the windows and smiled at the thought of seeing Brookie’s wife Benita. Sundays were important -- not a day for work, if at all possible. The windows were open, and a cool damp breeze blew in from the Thames. Through the siren, you could just hear a faint drone, sometimes snatched away by the wind.
   ‘You hear that?’ I asked.
   ‘No,’ said Brooke, scanning and scribbling. ‘Just a couple more…’ Brooke reached for the coloured pencils that lay in precise order in a footed tray on the right-hand side of the desk. Brooke chose a blue pencil and struck out line after line in a report. I turned again to the window and raised the sash higher.
   ‘Brookie. Listen.’ The drone was louder, unrelenting. 
   Brooke stood beside me. ‘They’re coming again,’ he said under his breath.
   We had known about the V-1 planes for years,  of course. Pilotless jet planes, loaded with explosives. 
   ‘They’re calling them Flying Bombs in the papers. We couldn’t keep it quiet, obviously.’
   We looked out the window. The V-1’s engine cut out just as I spotted the bastard. Deadly quiet now, whispering down, it hit the Hungerford railway bridge, a few hundred yards down river. I could just see the blast from where we stood. We said nothing. But you could see Brooke’s hands clench, and jaw tighten. ‘Get down,’ he said. We did.
   ‘Merciful Jesus,’ I swore as the shock waves shattered windows all along the river side of the War Office. Because Brooke’s window was open, it didn’t break, but the papers on his desk burst around the room. Brooke stood up and went to the door to check on the ATS lieutenant. Satisfied she was safe, he came back and began to pick up his papers. I helped in silence.
   Last week, after D-Day, we had dared a little optimism. Five years of going without. Five years of fear and exhaustion. The landings had been hell, but Normandy was the new battleground. London was not going to be the front line anymore. But now, the Germans were having their revenge. 
   ‘First one on Monday, then a few, but there have been dozens since then. There seems to be bugger all we can do about it.’ Brooke has a face like a hatchet, shaped by temperament more than birth. ‘What about your boys?’ 
   ‘Zig-Zag.  He’ll be providing eye-witness accounts of these hits. How they’ve missed – landed far well north of the city.’
   ‘You think the Germans will shorten their range?’ Brooke looked sceptical.
   ‘Simple is always best.’
   ‘It had better be. Listen.’
   Another V-1 was coming in from over Lambeth. Its engines stopped, and I counted in silence. Fifteen. And then the explosion.
   ‘They were right. Fifteen seconds after the engines stop. A shallow dive.’
   ‘No bomb crater. Maximum blast effect,’ Brooke commented wryly.
   The noise was building again. We looked out, over the river to the south. Against the grey sky, dark shapes moved inexorably toward us. The buzzing roar grew louder and louder, the planes heading right at us. Brooke glanced at me.
   ‘Fifteen seconds after the engines stop,’ I re-assured him.
   ‘It’s very low,’ he observed. There was clearly no point in running for cover.
   Just as it reached the river, the engines cut. I counted the silence. Three. Four. Five. Six. It skimmed over the Ministry building. We both flinched. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. And then the blast. 
   ‘Close,’ Brooke observed. 
   I admit to having felt a sudden sense of dread. I’m not one to funk it, but there was something ominous about these robots. I’ve had more than my share of war, I can tell. More than my share of killing, come to that. But this was worse, somehow. It was the coldness, the remoteness, the off-hand destruction that chilled me. Technological perversion.
   The phone rang. Brooke reached out his left hand, picked up the receiver, and listened. The blood drained from his face. He hung up in silence, and then picked up the inter office phone. ‘Order my car.’ He turned to me. ‘The Guards Chapel,’ was all he said.
   We headed for Wellington Barracks. The fire brigade, ambulance, police were everywhere. Dazed and bloodied parishioners picked their way out of the rubble. Soldiers in ragged uniforms clawed at broken concrete, trying to free the trapped, both making piteous animal sounds. The Chapel had been hit early in the Blitz, you see, and a new concrete roof had been installed. Tons of new cement had rained on the heads at the eleven o’clock service. 
The Bishop of Maidstone, preaching from the pulpit under the canopy, was the only person unscathed. Clean and white, he now moved through floating dust and cries like a bright glowing seraph. It was not really important. I knew that. But long habit meant that I could not take my eyes off him. 
   Decades ago, I had trained myself to commit to memory just one aspect of an event – something that stands out. You see, those small things can fix a scene in your head: with that, even years later, you can reconstruct the sequence of events around them. They convey the essence of the whole – at least as far as it concerns you.
Beyond pointless condolences, there was nothing for us to do, so Brookie offered to drive me home. ‘I think I should head back to the War Office,’ he said.
   ‘It’s not far. I’ll walk,’ I shook my head.
   ‘Nonsense,’ he said. 
   He waved his stick, and his driver brought the car as close as he could. We got in and I gave the address. We rode in silence. As is always the case in London, we seemed  to go the long way ’round to get there. The driver pulled up well before the turning. She turned and explained: ‘I’m sorry, sir. There’s something going on up ahead. The police have the street blocked.’
   ‘I’ll just get out here,’ said I, opening the door. The unease that had begun in Brooke’s office was nagging me. I never ignore that feeling. It’s a life preserver if you’re smart enough to pay attention.
   ‘I’m coming,’ said Brooke, who clearly has the same gift. ‘This isn’t good.’
   I only just managed to keep up with Brooke as he ploughed along the pavement, head forward, round shoulders hunched. At the corner of Rutherford Street, fire engines blocked the way. Hoses snaked over the pavement. Hard heels running rang on the stones. A clanging bell scattered bystanders out of the path of a speeding ambulance. An army sergeant snapped a smart salute as we passed. Brooke returned the salute, and we rounded the buildings that stood at the corner. The rest of Rutherford Street had disappeared. Only the back walls of buildings remained. Rooms were laid open, a tattered checkerboard of wallpapers, paints, and curtains. A honeycomb of domestic privacy exposed and ruined. My block of flats was gone. Vanished. 
   ‘Yours?’ asked Brooke.
   I nodded. He took my arm, and we moved down the street. Like at the Guards Chapel, the emergency workers whirled around us. The glass from hundreds of shattered windows lay like snow on the ground. It crunched underfoot and made the going slippery. 
   Untended and unheeded, Mrs Buttons lay dead beside a twisted lamppost. She was naked, her last best dress ripped from her body by the blast. Her face was quite recognizable, but her corpse was somehow formless, as if all the bones were gone, and only her skin was keeping the flesh in the proper place. Her cat was nestled against her right foot, sitting on top of a little wooden pencil box. My box, in fact. I shooed the cat and stooped to pick it up. An Air Raid Warden ran up to us, shouting and blowing a whistle.
   ‘Here, you! Put that down. Clear out of here,’ he barked, the officious little rat with his steel hat and armband and whistle. He squinted up at me with runny rodent eyes, ‘Authorized personnel, only.’
   ‘I live here,’ I said, numb for the moment.
   ‘I said put that box down,’ he repeated.
   The numbness evaporated. I had a powerful urge to punch him. ‘It’s my box, you little pimple. And I’ve already told you I live here.’
   ‘Really? What’s inside it, then,’ he asked, snatching the box from me. 
   ‘A lady’s fan,’ I replied.
The warden opened the box and snorted. ‘Fine,’ he said, and snapped the lid shut. Take it. What’s your Identity Number?’ 
   I hesitated, and he growled: ‘Now’. He tried to look threatening.
   Brooke stepped between us. ‘The gentleman is a Canadian. Canadians do not have Identity Numbers.’
   ‘And who are you?’
   ‘Field Marshal Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff.’
   ‘And I’m Marie of Rumania,’ he returned, but started to move away, nonetheless. ‘Now, hop it.’
Brookie looked ready to eviscerate the little man. I don’t suppose that anyone had told him to hop it in decades. The CIGS getting ticked off by a half-pint ARP warden is another one of those images that fixes a scene in memory. 
   So too, the jellied Mrs Buttons.
   ‘Come on, Brookie. There’s no point arguing with the man in charge,’ I said, turning back toward Horseferry Road. ‘There’s nothing for me here, anymore.’
   ‘Presumptuous little toad,’ he snarled as we walked back to the car. ‘You’re coming back to Hartley.’ Hartley Wintney was the little village in Hampshire where Brooke and his family lived.
   ‘What about the WO?’
   ‘To-morrow. Meantime, food and a stiff drink for you.’
   We got back in the car and headed out of London on the Great South West Road to Hampshire. The calm of the leafy garden, Brooke’s young children, and the solicitous care of Benita and her sister Mary, were other-worldly after London. They fussed and organized clothes for me. I phoned the High Commission and got hold of Massey,  who promised to let my New York office know I was OK. 
   After supper, Brooke and I retired to his study. He poured me a whisky and himself a soda water. ‘Where will you go?’ he asked in his typically direct manner.
   ‘I’m going back to New York in a week,’ I answered, sipping the whisky, which was surprisingly decent for an old puritan like Brookie.
   ‘Are you?’ He murmured. He was going through the letters he had brought from the War Office earlier in the day.
   ‘For a time.’ I wanted to say more, but the long habit of silence stopped me, even with an old friend who happened to outrank me. The phone rang.
   ‘Benita will get it. My shield and buckler here at home,’ he smiled. Brooke has the reputation of being hard, impervious to emotion and sentiment. Oysters need a shell. Benita is his second wife, his first having died in a car crash. Brookie had been the driver. The guilt of surviving is a heavy burden, one that soldiers always bear. It often makes them seek the comfort of structure, the impersonality of the chain of command. 
   Benita rapped at the door, then popped her head in. ‘It’s Brian Boyle.’
   ‘Boyle’s my Military Assistant,’ he explained. He put down his letters on the desk and picked up the phone with his left hand and a pen with his right. ‘Brooke,’ he announced into the phone. He listened and slowly his back stiffened. He picked up one of the letters from the blotter and stared at it. ‘I understand. Thank you, Brian.’ He hung up.
   He turned to me, his eyes glistening. ‘Ivan Cobbold is dead.  He was in the Guards Chapel this morning.’ Brooke handed me a letter. It was an invitation from Ivan and his wife Blanche to come for lunch later in the week. 
‘Oh, damn,’ I sighed. I had hardly known Ivan, but I had known his mother-in-law when she was a pretty, funny, breezy girl in Ottawa, back in the 80s. ‘Is Blanche all right?’
   ‘Apparently so,’ said Brooke as he poured himself an uncharacteristic drink and sat down again. ‘I’ll have to tell Benita. But to-morrow, I think. To-morrow will do. Poor Blanche. She lost her brother Charlie a few weeks ago, and now this.’ 
   He stopped speaking and just stared at the invitation. 
   ‘Are you all right, Alan?’
   ‘Oh, I’m fine, Jack. No, Christ, I’m not. Ivan and I were off on the Dee last month. Fishing. My first holiday since I don’t know when. His too,’ he paused and then addressed the floor: ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ He looked up at me with an owlish smile. ‘You’re always here, aren’t you?’
   ‘They say the good die young and old farts linger.’
   He smiled again, and his mouth and nose drew together as his face widened.  ‘They don’t say that at all!”
   ‘Well, I do. But this old fart is not going to linger any longer. I’m for a book and a bed, Brookie. If I stay here, we’ll just talk about the dead.’
   ‘I know. And I have some writing to do.’
   ‘Good night, then, Brookie,’ I said, and grabbed a book from the shelf.
   ‘Good night, old man.’
   I left the study, wished Benita and her sister good night, and headed up the stairs. I dressed for bed as best I could. Brooke’s pyjamas were rather shorter than required, but they were loose enough for comfort. I read for a couple of hours, but the words didn’t stay in my head. After I had read and re-read the same paragraph about five times, I gave up the book. As I reached for the bedside lamp, it occurred to me that I had left my little wooden box downstairs in the study. Unreasonably, I wanted that box, and I wanted it then. 
   I put on the old wine-coloured dressing gown Benita had laid out for me and opened the bedroom door. The hall was dark. The ticking of the long-case clock divided the thick, soft silence. I felt my way along the hall and down the stairs, the habits of a misspent lifetime coming in useful once again. 
   (For those of you planning a cat burglary or some such thing, the trick for going down unfamiliar stairs in the dark is to snug your heel into the back of every step. There now. You’ve already got your money’s worth from this book, and I can relax and just prattle.)
   From the landing I could see a spill of light angling across the floor of the entrance hall leading to the study door. Brooke was still working. 
   I opened the door and walked right up to his desk before he noticed.
   ‘Christ, Jack! What are you playing at?’ He clearly hadn’t heard me.
   I was amused for a moment, but Brooke was clearly angry. ‘Sorry, Brookie. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you. Bare feet, don’t you know?’
   ‘What do you want?’ He closed a small book and covered it from sight with a ledger. But I had already seen what he had been writing.
   I indicated my box on his desk. ‘My box, that’s all.’
   ‘What the hell do you want with it at this hour of the night?’ 
   ‘Just my ghosts, Brookie. Just my ghosts. I’ll leave you to your writing. Sorry to have disturbed you.’ I turned for the door, my mind spinning at the extraordinary – and dangerous – little book I had just seen.
   ‘Stop.’ I stopped and came back to the desk. ‘You saw it, didn’t you?’
   ‘Yes,’ I nodded.
   ‘I write it every day, Jack,’ admitted the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Against all precedent, against common sense, against the law, the CIGS kept a diary. He now showed it to me.
   ‘Why?’ I asked, simply. The diary was very small, with point form entries. 
   ‘I write it like a letter. To Benita. It started at the beginning of the War. I was away a great deal, and it felt better to tell her what had happened during the day – I always had done it in person – we had been married for ten years, for God’s sake, and I suppose I just missed the …’ he groped for a word.
   ‘The outlet,’ I helped.
   ‘The outlet. Yes, that will do.’
   ‘What’s in it?’
   ‘Christ, Brookie.’
   ‘No, not you. You’re never in there. Winston, yes. Mountbatten and Monty, yes. But not you. The rest is policy, public most of it, at least the decisions. But not what you do. If that were ever to get out…’
   ‘What did you say about to-day?’
   ‘Left it blank. Put the pertinent events into to-morrow. Avoided you.’
   I looked closely at Brooke. He was tired, beyond what I had ever seen before. ‘You really need this, don’t you?’
   ‘You have no idea. This is just a valve, to let off the steam,’ he said simply. There was no sense of pleading: it was clear I could never reveal what I had seen. ‘The work is hellish. Winston has me tied to that damned desk, and for the simple and elegant reason that he depends on me for an argument! You know what he’s like – you’ve known him a lot longer than I have.’
   That was true. And if anyone could balance Churchill’s mercuric moods and wild impetuosity, it would be Brookie. And if Brookie needed to balance that himself, who was I to argue? ‘I won’t say anything.’
   ‘Thank you, Jack.’
   ‘Just be careful.’
   ‘I will. You ever feel the temptation?’ he asked as he took back the book.
   ‘A diary? Never. I’ve never been that disciplined. Not like you.’
   ‘I’d read it,’ he offered. 
   ‘You’re a very bad flatterer, Brookie.’
   ‘Not flattery, not at all. Think about it, Jack. I know you can’t write about the current situation, not just yet. But think back.’
   ‘I prefer not to think about the past. Too many ghosts nowadays. You write for Benita. Who would I write for?’
   ‘Maybe your ghosts?’
   ‘Don’t be idiotic.’ Brooke bristled. ‘Sir,’ I added, with a laugh.
   ‘Well then, make some money. Even you will have to retire some day.’
   I didn’t need money, but this wasn’t the time to explain. I picked up my box and headed for the study door.
   ‘A fan, Jack?’ asked Brooke.
   I hesitated. ‘A talisman, Brookie. Would you like to see?’ He nodded and I opened the box.
   ‘What is the significance?’ he asked as I unwound the tissue paper.
   ‘Just a lady’s fan, made of finely fretted wood, barely held together with disintegrating pink ribbon.’ I rubbed it out of habit before passing it to Brooke.
  ‘It’s not expensive, if that’s what you mean.  In fact, it was given away -- as a party favour to every woman who attended a ball. More than sixty years ago. But it’s why I’m here, Brookie. Come to think of it, it’s even why you’re here.’


Character should always drive plot.

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