Mai Wei woke fresh from a deep and satisfying sleep. He spent ten minutes doing exercises and showered in luke-warm water. He took the stairs down to the restaurant for breakfast. All part of his new regime. He drank up an expresso in one and suddenly had an idle thought. “Telford! It’s just thirty miles away!” Why not visit the old stomping grounds? Why not a sip of nostalgia? Surely the richest man in the world has the right to indulge in a morning – just a morning! – wandering about aimlessly in his teenage haunts. Then he had an even better thought, and called Pie.
“Kevin,” he said. “I wonder if you could permit me a little luxury…”
What could Pie say? He resented forking out another two hundred quid for fifty more miles of vouchers, but Mai Wei was his prize so he dialled Krebs and barked at him to hurry off to the regional party offices and bring the Rolls back to the hotel. Mai Wei was waiting excitedly outside the hotel, years rolling back and his spirit breaking out into poetry. And into mischief. For no sooner had Krebs emerged from the car – with its engine still purring – and was all “Sir this and that, Sir” and sweeping around with his bowler hat, that Mai Wei slipped in behind the wheel, slammed the door shut, and lurched out into the road, with Krebs left behind, frozen with anger and indignation, grabbing on to a Victorian lamp-post for balance.
Mai Wei’s golden Rolls Royce sped through Birmingham – the crowds on the streets turned from their daily routines and stared – and out onto the M6 he rode, northwards and westwards, until he veered off onto the M54 to Telford. Hardly another car shared the roads with him. Those days petrol fuel was such a luxury that only the very wealthiest or purposeful had access to fuel vouchers. He passed a couple of government vehicles and a lorry carrying logs. Once he noticed a Porsche Mephisto on the other carriage way – he’d read about the Kohlenkommando – and shuddered. The road was rutted, foxgloves and nettles had encroached from the central reservation on to the fast lane. Mai Wei smiled to himself behind the wheel. Somewhere nature was winning…
For an hour he drove slowly around Telford’s closes and drives of brick and pebbledash. He thought he recognised Casablanca Drive but it would turn out to be Lawns Wood or Dinthill or Brookside Avenue. Then he found Market Street which was bustling with a farmer’s market so he pulled up on to the pavement and wandered on foot pushing through the crowds past stalls selling root vegetables and jams and breads. He returned to the Duke of York where once he had hurled Shropshire ales down his hungry throat; then he peeped inside the Black Horse with its paintings of horses and jockeys, the cocky sportsmen, the ruddy huntsmen … then the Pheasant Arms where he beat Arthur at backgammon, and as he emerged, a blue door opposite caught his eye. Above it a sign which read: “GLOOM AND SON – ACCOUNTANTS AND ASTROLOGERS – READ YOUR FORTUNE”.
“No, I shouldn’t,” thought Mai Wei, “Chop Chop will be livid.” But the three ales had worked their magic and it was a special day after all. So Mai Wei knocked at the door. And he knocked again for good measure.
Dame Daphne had left early that morning to speak at Essex Mums-at-Home in Basildon. As Minister of Education she was pioneering pre-school on the grounds that 6-18 was a waste of time if 0-5 was mucked up. Based on her best-selling text book “Low-carbon parenting for home mums”, her speech was received in village halls and hotel ballrooms up and down the country (from St Agnes to Nigg Bay, for example) with rapturous screams of emancipation. Since Nat Eb’s fiscal reforms eliminated practically all tax on labour, mums were liberated from economic and social pressure to work away from home. Long-term savings on healthcare, welfare and urban policing had been securitised to fund home parenting, a shining example of how the lost age of financial wizardry crossed over into the new age of austerity and wholesome tradition.
Thus Sir Godfrey sat alone in his study the morning after Mai Wei’s dinner with Lord Pie. The rain had stopped and a low wintry sun cast its feeble rays through the bay windows, caressed an aspidistra on the way and gilded his bald pate. Steam rose from a mug of chocolate – treat of treats! – and danced in the light. Sir Godfrey looked out into the garden from his desk. A robin hopped damply on the lawn. The apple tree lost its last leaf. A cat sneaked behind a rhododendron. Suburbia unchanged for a century or more. A peak of human society at peace with itself.
Yet Sir Godfrey felt utter hopelessness. He felt the helplessness of someone, weary from a bitter and futile campaign, watching a condemned building crumble even as its exquisite façade gleamed in the rain. Sir Godfrey had a decision to make. In fact he had made it. He had set up the elite force, Team Nevis, three years ago. It was a small team of crack troops and infiltrators, working outside the law, targeting climate change deniers and other trouble-makers.
Sir Godfrey was a fair man, scrupulously fair, but he realised that the technology of justice – with its wigs and ponderousness and standards of proof – was not up to serving the cause of mankind. Justice was for putting bankers behind bars or giving a petty thief a short, sharp shock. But the crimes of deniers and fuelists were unquantifiable and indefinable, cause and effect too complex, immeasurable and intractable for any system of justice to address them. Those sirens that lured mankind to the rocks…
“No!” said Sir Godfrey, out loud. How he hated metaphor! Yet Sir Godfrey knew! He just knew! It had been a long battle of reason over emotion, yet finally, after years of reflection and with a heavy heart, he had signed the order to form Team Nevis.
And now, another three years on, he had come to a reluctant and horrible decision. He picked up the phone and dialled a number on Line 47.
“Nevis 7” came the voice down the line.
Sir Godfrey spoke: “The pond is green… Frogspawn.”
Nevis 7 put down the phone. “Frogspawn to die,” she thought. And then a thrill of adrenalin shot through her body like an electric shock. She had been chosen.