Authors: Bob Cook
“One of these subtler minds is named, let us say, Wymanâ¦ Wyman's overpopulated universe is in many ways unlovely. It offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes, but this is not the worst of it. Wyman's slum of possibles is a breeding ground for disorderly elements.”
W. V. QUINE,
On What There Is
HE CHANCELLOR of the Exchequer stared through the front window of 11 Downing Street. He was uneasy. There was a large crowd of people outside. They did not look happy.
“Fucking rabble,” he murmured.
“Pardon, dear?” asked his wife.
“Nothing,” he grunted. He put on his overcoat and picked up his briefcase.
“I think it's going to rain,” she said.
He opened the front door and stepped outside. He was greeted by a chorus of booing and catcalls. He replied with a broad smile and, in time-honoured fashion, he waved his briefcase. In a few hours the contents of that briefcase would be public knowledge.
Apart from the traditional attacks upon smokers of tobacco, drinkers of alcohol and drivers of motor vehicles, the Chancellor had something nastier in store. His proposed cuts in public expenditure would make previous efforts look tiny by comparison. This time there would be no half-hearted attempts at penny-pinching. This time the public sector would be kosher-killed.
There were two special areas upon which the Chancellor wished to inflict Grievous Bodily Harm. One was the Civil Service, with its vast bureaucratic empire and obscure fringe departments. It was time for the complacent, public-school monopoly of Britain's administration to end.
The other target was education, in particular the Old Universities. In the Chancellor's opinion, these establishments fostered a brand of elitism that retarded the progress of the New Right. The Chancellor was a New Conservative. He fervently believed that all hope for the future of his country lay with the dynamic middle classes. The aristocracy of Oxbridge dinosaurs was a brake upon his party's ideological progress. They would have to go.
Of course, the Chancellor's background in a Secondary Modern School and his failure to pass the Civil Service exams had no bearing whatsoever on these views.
HE SECOND OF MAY was a bleak, muddy sort of day. Michael Wyman splashed through last night's rainwater as he walked down London's Tottenham Court Road. By the time he arrived at his office on the north side of Percy Street, he felt as if he had finished his day's work. It was 9
Wyman's office was a faded Georgian building which lay between Greek and Chinese restaurants. The large blue doors carried a sign which said “The Family Planning Association has moved to 32 Charlotte Street”.
Mr Berkeley, the porter, greeted him.
“Good morning, Dr Wyman,” he said, in a voice of habitual gloom.
Mr Berkeley was a religious man. He belonged to one of those sects which believed that Armageddon would come that afternoon at 3
His desk was littered with tracts, and he would give one to anyone who entered the building. As usual, he gave one to Wyman.
“Good morning, Mr Berkeley. Thank you,” said Wyman. He walked up the stairs to the second floor and sat down in his office.
Berkeley's pamphlet, he noted, was a typical specimen. It exhorted its reader to repent before being done to a turn in the eternal microwave oven. Wyman was urged to abandon greed, lust, gluttony, blasphemy and deceit. He was then asked to donate Â£2.00 to the happy sect so that others could be similarly informed. Wyman threw the pamphlet into his wastepaper bin. A true religion, he reflected, should never ask for less than a fiver.
Michael Wyman was fifty-six and looked it. His hair was white and thinning. He had a pink, flabby face and a paunch that indicated a lifetime of comfort. His black spectacle frames were peppered with the dandruff that Vosene had failed to remove.
Despite all this, he was not an unattractive human being. He was good-humoured and kind. The only people not won over by his erudite charm were those who were neither erudite nor charming. Unfortunately, these included Wyman's employers and most of his colleagues.
Wyman worked for M16, the British intelligence-gathering organization known to its members as the Firm. He was stationed in a backwater known as the Department, which specialized in collecting information from obscure sources in East Germany. Once upon a time, at the height of the Cold War, the Department had been an important feature of British Intelligence. Now, however, the Department was as dry and dusty as those who ran it.
Although he worked in Intelligence, it would have been wrong to call Wyman a spy. He was a half-caste: a Ph.D. in Philosophy who had joined MI6 as an alternative to National Service. For the next thirty years Wyman had combined his career as a university don with that of an intelligence officer. The combination had not been altogether successful. In academic circles he was regarded as a wasted talent, and in MI6 he was deemed to be past his prime.
None of this bothered Wyman much. He was comfortable, and retirement was not far away. His college would give him a reasonable pension. He was secure, and had no worries.
Wyman's in-tray contained a number of letters, and he began his daily routine by reading them. The first was a memorandum from MI6 headquarters. It reminded him that his report on arms manufacture in East Germany was three weeks overdue, and asked that it be sent in immediately. Since Wyman had not yet written the report, he was in no position to send it in. The memo joined Mr Berkeley's tract in the wastepaper basket.
Just as Wyman was about to open his next letter, Mrs Hobbes knocked and came in.
“Morning, Dr Wyman,” she trilled. “Cup of tea?”
Mrs Hobbes was the tea-lady, cleaner and general factotum. She was fat, hairy and cheerful. Her hair was styled in a blue rinse, and she always smelled of lavatory cleaner. Wyman speculated that there were flying ducks on the wall of her living-room and a plastic gnome in her front garden.
“Good morning, Mrs Hobbes,” Wyman said. “I'd love a cup, thank you.”
“Right you are,” said Mrs Hobbes. “Shall I do your office today? It does need a clean, and Mr Berkeley's fixed the Hooverâ”
“Not today, thank you,” Wyman said quickly. He did not like having his office cleaned, even though it was a mess. On the very few occasions that Mrs Hobbes had ever tidied it up, Wyman had complained for months afterwards that he could not find anything. That was because Mrs Hobbes had an irritating habit of putting books on bookshelves, files in filing cabinets, and paper in stationery cupboards. Wyman found such efficiency disagreeable.
Mrs Hobbes went away to make the tea, and Wyman opened his next letter. It was from the Director, and was countersigned by Owen, Wyman's immediate superior in the Department.
He read the letter in disbelief, and then reread it to be certain that he was not hallucinating. The opening lines were standard enough nowadays: “Dear Dr Wyman, As you are aware, the last budget has forced us to implement severe economies”, etc.,etc. It was the concluding paragraphs that hit Wyman like a punch in the face.
“Good God. I've been sacked.”
HE CAFÃ ROMA in Percy Street was run by an Italian called Giuseppe Peano who knew what good Italian food tasted like but found it more profitable to forget. Having abandoned his culinary integrity, Giuseppe made a reasonable living by serving spaghetti with chips and lasagne with baked beans. The only thing even Giuseppe could not bring himself to desecrate was his coffee. He served the best cappucino in London's W1.
Wyman stepped into the cafÃ© at 11
and said good morning to Giuseppe.
“Good morning. Iss usual for the
” Giuseppe asked.
“Yes, iss usual,” Wyman said.
Giuseppe called “Cappucino” to a sultry girl behind the counter. She clanked metal cups, twisted chromium pipes and steam-blasted milk as Giuseppe went to Wyman's table.
“Perhaps you like to eat today,
?” he suggested.
“I don't think so,” Wyman said.
“No? You no' hungry? No' want to eat? Why not?”
“Because I like Italian food,” Wyman said.
“No, Giuseppe. Very tragic, from a gastronomic point of view.”
“Perhaps,” he conceded. “But, if iss what people like, iss what they get, no? All right, so iss sheet. People like sheet.”
“I don't,” Wyman said.
Giuseppe considered this as the girl brought the coffee. Then he said: “For you, iss only one solution. Marry nice good Italian girl who cook for you. Then you will be happy.”
“That's an idea, isn't it?” Wyman said. “I'll think about that, Giuseppe.”
“You no' too old. Nice good Italian girl give you cheeldren, not like these Eengleesh
âhow do you say
“Sows, Giuseppe,” Wyman said. He was never entirely sure if Giuseppe was joking. “Ah, here comes my very own
Margaret walked in. Her cheeks were flushed with the morning cold.
“Hello, Giuseppe,” she said. “Cappucino, please.”
“Good morning,” said Giuseppe, and he returned to the counter.
Margaret was opposite Wyman.
“Hello,” she said. “What's new?”
“Lots,” Wyman said. “How about you?”
“Lots,” she said. “Who goes first, you or me?”
“Age before beauty.”
“The Firm is making me redundant.”
There was a long silence.
Margaret Ramsey was thirty-nine. She was tall, blonde and slender. Like Wyman, she was a divorcÃ©e. She had worked as Wyman's assistant until it became clear that she was assisting Wyman with more vigour than her job merited. At that stage Owen's embarrassed coughs had articulated themselves into an ultimatum: either Margaret would be transferred or she would leave the Firm. She chose to leave.
Margaret's resignation invigorated their affair. All the care and enthusiasm she had formerly applied to her work were now lavished on Michael Wyman.
“When did you find out?” Margaret asked.
“This morning. Nothing was said; just a buff envelope on my desk which said that the Firm has to economize. It was all very polite, of course, but the point was clear. They're getting rid of dead wood, and in arboreal terms, I am very dead indeed.”
“But that's absurd. You do a splendid job for them.”
“Tell them, not me,” Wyman said. “Anyway, it doesn't really matter. What about this baby? How on earth did it happen? I meanâ¦well, you knowâ¦”
“Yes, I know. The doctor was wrong, wasn't he? I am fertile, obviously.”
“Are you absolutely sure about this? I meanâ¦”
“Well, well,” said Wyman. A roguish grin split his face open and he laughed.