home................................................stories......

..........CITY KID
                         

Two days after my 12th birthday my father was killed by a bomb in Central London. His old rivals the KGB got him; or so it was alleged - there was never any confirmation. It happened late at night, not far from the cenotaph. He was 42 and at the peak of his career.

According to those who assessed the attack, it was clearly my father's rank that made him a target. He was head of Whitehall security and attached to MI5. I later learned, though quite by accident, that the case was enmeshed in a labyrinth of error and betrayal, sometimes amounting to treason.

In contrast to its dangers, the job attracted a certain celebrity status, from both within the tiers of security and beyond, and it also afforded its holder particular powers over the movement of senior politicians as well as over various other manoeuvres and operations. My father held the job for three years and must have known the risks by heart. But three years can be too long in any job if nothing happens. And the most potent fuel for fermenting complacency is nothing happening, the security man's most lethal and insidious foe.

As something of a socialiser and a man who not only valued distinction of rank but savoured prestige and its trimmings like a vintner savours a venerable port, my father had often received informal warnings from concerned acquaintances; but the seeds of fate, it seems, were beyond his control; and were further compromised by several other weaknesses. It is to one of these weaknesses, incidentally, that I owe my life.

In short, his was a post requiring more than the usual discretion; and discretion was a quality in which at times my father seemed almost wholly depleted.

For a number of reasons, which will become clear, I wasn't sorry when it happened; for one thing my father was a stranger to me, his only daughter, and also to mother to some extent. He was not married to her: she had been one of his mistresses, once highly favoured but eventually cast aside like all the rest; to him, with his impetuous ill-conceived delusions, which always faded as swiftly and whimsically as they arose, these women friends were mere chattels to be used and then discarded like redundant pets, suddenly grown stale and repulsive as though overtaken by some unseemly transformation. Mother told me all this many years later, in her usual coy, cynical way, revealing at last everything about those times.

From before he first met mother and up until his death, my father rented a comfortable flat in Piccadilly, rather as might an M P: his wife and three children, all boys, being left to enjoy the benefits of a country house in the Sussex weald, well out of harms way. The flat served partly as a private postal address and partly as a refuge, where he seldom stayed but from where, unencumbered by his dubious liaisons, he could entertain officials and conduct his financial affairs in peace and isolation.

How he could have been an effective security officer, mother reflected, she never knew, for he seemed to spend most of his time socialising with high ranking politicians and civil servants whose clandestine, disreputable activities he often recounted with delight, as though their indiscretions somehow exonerated his own. So far as politics is concerned, there is no explicit proof of which way my father leaned, but for a man of his foibles and handicaps, not to mention his pedigree - a fragment mother staunchly refused to divulge and which I eventually discovered by chance - there seemed little doubt. And this understanding was to open several crucial doors to me as my improbable career unfolded: doors that, I am convinced, would otherwise have remained firmly closed.

Apart from his large income and expense claims, mother told me, my father had an impressive portfolio of investments and owned a large plot of land in the North of England. This and much more besides she had lured out of him at his most passionate and vulnerable moments. Later, in irritation, he would always retract these statements in a flippant off-hand way that only assured mother that they were true: and this was confirmed, she said, by his blushes and flashing eyes as he castigated himself for his impulsive outspokenness. But when off guard once again, as commonly happened, he would ingenuously repeat himself often adding new details and musing aloud about his numerous activities and possessions.

Though he only succumbed to these rash expositions under particular circumstances, my father's weakness for gloating and flaunting himself like this probably reflected some inherent deficiency. Certainly, it was inconsistent with the obligations of his job. But mother was not slow to take certain advantage of this, though not in ways she regarded as immoral; and she was far from inept at handling his particular ways. On their first meeting he had insisted that she remain faithful to him alone, so long as their alliance lasted, and at first mother had refused; but when he finally agreed to recompense her accordingly, she relented, and for both of them the arrangement could not have been better.



In honouring her vow of loyalty, though, mother became quite attached to my father, even though she didn't much like him. She did, however, describe to me some attributes of his that made her situation more acceptable in those days and sometimes even a pleasure. For instance, he frequently presented her with small gifts, trinkets and clothes and other things that women cherish, things that were of good quality and corresponded to her taste. And as a rule he treated her with politeness and respect, regularly taking her out to nice places, theatres and restaurants and suchlike.

Although my father hadn't implied as much, mother imagined in her daydreams that one day he might warm to her more and leave his family for her, a family that he neglected in any case; but it was only her wishful imagination, for she well knew that he entertained other women from time to time, as the mood pleased him, and that it was not in his nature to tie himself down. He often lamented on the foolishness of his youthful haste into marriage, which had become the scapegoat of all his ills and the subject of his greatest regret, and it was a constant struggle for her to direct his thoughts away from these matters which troubled him so much.

On the other hand, to embellish his wanton flights of lust with any kind of ostentation was far from his style; rather, he disclosed them with reluctance if not with shame, and did so only upon mothers incautious prompting, making no attempt to distort facts as they stood.

She believed, perhaps rightly, that coercing him in this way, just as she had in extricating those other statements, satisfied his need to be truthful with at least one person in his life; and anyway, she said, it seemed to put him more at ease with her, lowering his barriers and softening him, if only temporarily, into a more pliant and yielding state of mind. Whether this acquiescence of his was due to guilt and a desire to make amends, or whether it was because his confessions, even if offered unwillingly, alleviated his anxiety and general restlessness, she couldn't say; but the simple fact of her wanting to hear and yet never once judging or chastising his conduct, she said, had a definite mollifying effect on him.

Mother was very clever in those days, she remarked one day with a sly cheerful smile, and was able to wheedle almost anything from a man who hired her services. She protested that she could have built quite a fortune if only she had possessed those mysterious and unsavoury characteristics special to hardened blackmailers. But, as she herself knew well enough, she would have been quite incapable of that kind of ruthless cunning. Perhaps it was the counterbalance of her natural attractiveness in both appearance and manner that freed her from the lure of any meretricious or insincere conduct so common in women of her persuasion; I cannot recall a single instance of her showing anxiety or despondency, though frequently there were times when her mood would dip and the atmosphere become sombre with her precise slow movements as she went to and fro between the rooms of the flat.

But through these periods she always maintained a dignified self-assurance, which, however harsh in her silent reserve, was never cold or unresponsive. So in spite of her profession in those days she was a very high minded women, with the same deeply held beliefs she holds today; beliefs that seem to originate very early in life and never wilt or fade as do things that are taught by pedagogues and priests.

In contrast to my father's other women friends, his affair - or more correctly 'arrangement' - with mother was concluded tacitly and unpleasantly. That was when she got pregnant with me. The responsibility rested with her, he had said, it was her fault and he wanted nothing to do with it.

The fact was that far from having nothing to do with it my father adopted a posture that can only be described as offensive. I later gained the impression that he behaved this way towards anyone who displeased him or jeopardised his plans.

Few people who knew mother could have failed to recognise that in matters of trust she was quite above of any kind of deceit, so there was no question in my father's mind that I was his child. By becoming pregnant and therefore having lost her own undefiled charm, mother was now an impediment, a liability; and my invisible presence likewise was nothing more than a security risk. At first my father pleaded with her to have me aborted, and even proposed to make the arrangements himself, saying he knew of an excellent clinic that specialised in such things. He probably did too. Needless to say, mother would have none of it and, with her usual steadfast resolve, refused his offer out of hand.

The only good thing I can say about my father is that he always kept his word and seldom procrastinated. Having accepted her decision, he pledged to make mother a generous allowance, one that in his absence would keep us materially fully provided for - while he was alive - and not once did the money fail to appear. But it was a pledge made under duress. After a prolonged but restrained squabble, during which mother had pressed for and finally obtained from him the promise of a sum commensurate with his circumstances, they came to an arrangement and that was that. So the size of the allowance did not so much reflect any charitable intent on his part, nor did it represent the scope of his compassion or remorse, but was merely expedient, a guarantee that mother would keep her mouth tightly shut.

Above all, I should stress, mother was a determined woman and would go to extraordinary lengths to see justice done, as she saw it. This was apparent in almost everything she did of any significance, and I suppose it was her determination that accounts for her securing the allowance that served us so well in those difficult times.

Soon he stopped seeing mother altogether, except once or twice a year. Then, he would call round on what I now believe was merely the pretext of discussing their financial arrangements, always trying but failing to negotiate a reduction.

"Extortion." he would say in a restrained pompous voice as though it were a proven fact, "that's what it is, extortion!" Mother would purse her lips and wait for him to finish and then go on to tell him how badly off she was, and him being so rich. Then in a sort of whining voice he would start on about principles, telling her she ought to marry or go out to work and employ a nanny.

And so it would go on, always the same arguments and always the same result: my father relentlessly pressing for a reduced payment, mother never budging an inch. Looking back now, I feel sure there were other reasons for his visits that mother failed to recognise, or chose not to; which is why I used the word 'pretext' just now. Like mother, he was not given to ready submission in any situation unless he had earlier resigned himself to it.

But these were the only times I ever saw him, and from the age of five onwards, after I started school, I encountered him less often, perhaps only once a year. And even on the first occasion I remember seeing him it was clear to me that he was essentially an intolerant man, self-centred and dictatorial in the extreme, though his constrained manner served to avail him of seeming cruel or malicious, which I now know he wasn't.

Notwithstanding her strengths, mother's eventual break with my father gave way, as I have already implied, to emotions that left her distraught for many months. During this period she sought comfort in her resolve that with her new income she would relinquish her unbecoming profession and turn her attention to me, her new source of interest and delight. So with all that behind her and with her new income she began a completely new life.

At that time and for some years afterwards we lived in a small but attractive and well-appointed flat off the Bayswater Road, not far from Hyde Park. I remember mother taking me often to the park where we would feed the ducks on the Serpentine and then the sparrows, which had got so tame that they would stand on your hand and feed without fear.

Apart from one very significant incident, there is little worth telling of those times; except to say it was a fairly happy period in my life. One day, I think I was about three years old, my father was making one of his rare visits when, as was customary, he began quarrelling with mother. I remember she moved me into the hall with my toys and pulled the door shut so I wouldn't hear them...

I should emphasise here that in spite of what I've already said about him, my father was neither an aggressive nor a violent man. He was overridingly, if anything, well composed and demure, even sedate, if also a little aloof; at least this was so from what I myself saw of him if I put aside the colouring of mothers depictions; and apart from the episode I have mentioned which caused his separation from mother he conducted himself in a manner that befitted someone of high office. He was tall and well built, with short greying hair and always dressed immaculately, as though he were about to attend an important meeting, or some special event. I remember thinking he was very handsome too, and I used often to wonder what he was really like to know, if knowing him were at all possible, and what his real family were like. I was careful not speak my thoughts to mother in those days. If I ever did mention him by mistake she quickly introduced another subject, and it would put her in a bad mood for several minutes until her mind moved on to other things. But all the same, I felt sad that he paid me only scant attention, scarcely bothering to acknowledge me on those rare visits of his. Doubtless the arguments were about money, and his mind would have been preoccupied, but I can't help even now feeling perplexed by his neglect of me...

As I was saying: I had been exiled to the hallway with my toys. I was surrounded by them, almost too many perhaps for a child of only three; but for some reason, on this particular day, I felt no interest in them, and instead turned my attention to the cupboard where mother kept her brooms and dusters. The latch was not quite closed, it never had closed. I think the door was warped, and so I was able to pull it open and crawl in. It was dark but my eyes soon adjusted and I could see everything with exceptional clarity.

On the wall was a black box with a door which was wide open. Inside, at the bottom, lay a long screwdriver and some fuses in a cellophane pack. I had no idea what they were at the time, and it is only upon recollection that I can identify these things. Fixed to the wall inside the box were two more boxes, one above the other, the top one having a window through which I could see a row of numbers. Obviously, now, this was the electricity meter. Clumsily, I took the screwdriver and intending (for what reason I cannot say) to poke it at the window, somehow got it caught up underneath the lower box. As I went to wriggle it free there was a blinding flash the colour of fresh lavender and a sharp crack like a flat object splashing onto water. They were the most beautiful sight and sound I had ever known and are fixed firmly and vividly in my memory. I wasn't in the least scared by this: if anything I was intrigued, enraptured even. I had discovered magic, after all.

The next thing I remember was mother dragging me out of there in a state of panic and then hugging me while she cursed at the warped door which she kicked shut with her foot.

I learned later that it was three hours before power returned to the flats. All this time my father had remained in the lounge, and I remember his vague, indifferent glance while mother laid into him as if it were his doing. But I believe it was this event that was responsible for my later unquenchable passion for electricity and for all the wonderful things it can be made to do.

By the time I was 12 years old I had learned a good lot about electricity. I had constructed several different kinds of radio-communicator, remote control toys, and many other less sophisticated devices; and I had owned a computer for five years. For my 12th birthday, though, mother gave me a set of journals the like of which I have not seen since. I was sure they were of questionable legality, and remain so today - they are on the shelf here beside me - but at the time they struck me as being remarkably innovative and stirred in me a kind of ambiguous refreshing excitement as if I had unearthed something both miraculous and daunting - which in time would lead to even greater and more thrilling discoveries.

Years later I learned they had contained the very latest technology from MI5; and that my father had given them to mother, who was technically illiterate, requesting that they be saved for me. When considering their content, it is ironic that only two days later my father was to meet his end, and I remember the occasion well.

That night, the night he was killed, my father had been summoned to a security alert in Downing Street. He was being driven there in his official car. His pager, which he kept in his left inside pocket close to his gun, had sounded while he and his young woman friend were being driven from the theatre to her flat somewhere in Chelsea. The official chauffeur, who was known simply as Jed, had, upon my father's instruction, immediately altered course. They were within a minute's drive of Downing Street when they stopped. My father must have realised he could proceed no further without letting the young women out of the car.

Afterwards, when at last Jed had recovered enough to be interviewed, and forensic examinations were complete, it was revealed that the young woman had been carrying the bomb hidden in a Walkman which hung from a strap around her neck. She and my father had been engaged in a heated argument and struggle when he eventually instructed Jed to stop the car. Then, telling the young women to get out, my father had grabbed the Walkman and accused her of bugging their conversation with a view to blackmail. That was the moment when the device had exploded. Upon reconstruction of the fragments, the 'Walkman' was found to be a transmitter; and it had contained a timer that had stopped at exactly one minute from zero. The Department denied any knowledge of an alert; and the young woman's identity was never disclosed. Both were killed outright.

.....................---------- // -----------



see: Moravia

If you've managed to wade through that you should be congratulated. It strikes me now as old fashioned, convoluted and trite; though it does have an odd compelling quality, I believe - and was a worthwhile experiment for me. It was, when I wrote it, intended to form the prelude of  a thriller novella in which would unfold a life of hectic intrigue for our precocious unnamed heroine. Since the style didn't come naturally, it was hard to maintain, so after a few feeble attempts at continuing the story, I gave up.

I read in a Steinbeck biography some years ago that during a visit to Italy he met Moravia - whose real name was Alberto Pincherle (born 1907 -five years after Steinbeck). It struck me when I read about this meeting, which I believe took place sometime in the 1950s after the publications of 'The Woman of Rome' (1949) and Steinbeck's 'East of Eden' (1952), that these novels contained similar events near the end: the survival of an illegitimate male child from a fairly brutal father whose chances in both novels competed (favourably, as it turned out) with a passive amiable and potentially legitimate father.

I leave it to others, for the moment, to speculate on the significance of this - both the event, and the dual use of it… except to mention that recent speculation in the media suggests that an amazingly high proportion of people - more than 20%, I think - have fathers other than the one known to them. But Moravia was definitely a champion of women and saw them as noble victims in a world dominated chiefly by unscrupulous men.