Friday, 19 June 2020

Ragnail Loathebrook - the reluctant Viking

Image from Pixabay

Ragnail Loathebrook

The reluctant Viking


Ragnail awoke with a cavernous yawn. He rolled over and tried to return to oblivion; to no avail. There was too much noise going on outside in the port town of Katgut. 'Oh well,' he thought, 'at least I can get breakfast.' "Think again," said his mother, reading his look, "it's long past time for breakfast. Get yourself outside and join your father and brothers. They're at weapons practice." "Aw, Ma!" complained Ragnail." 

As usual, there was no arguing with his mother, Biggirthe. Ragnail put on his clothes and went out. The clash of iron on iron and the crash of wooden shields greeted his ears. Men were fighting in the yard, with a vigour that suggested they were deadly serious. Most bore the signs of old wounds. The more, the older. Marks of honour for those would-be warriors. There wasn't much difference in intensity between practice and battle. Just that the weapons weren't battle sharp and nobody got killed. At least not deliberately. 

Ragnail covered his ears with his hands. “Aargh!” he exclaimed, “what a racket.” “Grab a weapon, you lazy bastard, and never mind your ears, they'll warm up soon enough,” ordered his father. “We'll make a warrior of you yet.” Ragnail knew better than to avoid this duty. The alternative was to muck out Katgut's byres and stables, then the pigsty. Work for slaves, and reluctant sons. The yard was churned to mud by scuffling, scrambling, booted feet, but better that than hoof-churned cow-shit and straw. Ragnail grabbed a sword and shield, and hove to. 

Don't get him wrong. Ragnail lacked neither skill nor application when it came to the crunch. It was a matter of self preservation. Accidents were more likely in the absence of earnest endeavour. Ragnail too bore some scars, but he wasn't proud of them. Doing enough to satisfy his father and keep his self respect was his motivation. Just enough. No more. It was all a tedious chore. Necessary all the same. Those with lesser skill ended up having to do more than a fair share of rowing when it came to viking. This year's raiding season was approaching with the end of spring. The planting of crops was almost done. 'Another few weeks and the Leiðangr will be gone across the German Sea, and I'll be left in peace,' thought Ragnail. He was wrong.

Wyrd and her thread-spinning, Nornir accomplices intervened. Those few short weeks later, Ragnail was aboard his father's skeið in the Skagerrak, perched alongide his brother and sesse-mate, hands on oar. “What do you mean, I have to sail with you father?” Ragnail had pleaded when Bjorn-Agen told him of the pending expedition. “Surely I must stay behind to protect the old and frail, and the womenfolk?” “I'm well aware of the kind of protection you have in mind Ragnail my lad,” responded the father, “but it's high time you were blooded on a raid. You have the family reputation to uphold. And I'm not leaving you here to shag yourself silly while we're off pillaging abroad.” As with his mother, Ragnail could never prevail against his father. That's why he found himself aboard Gullhyrndr (Golden Horn), seated next to his brother, Vilhamarr, manning an oar.  

Bambahamarr beat out the stroke-rhythm on his pigskin drum. All the longship's oarsmen kept in synch through practice, instinctively marking stroke in time with the drumbeats. Ragnail's instincts were at odds with such conformity. Half an hour of strenuous effort was about all Ragnail was prepared to contribute. When Vilhamarr next pulled for a stroke, Ragnail relaxed his hitherto synchronous efforts. The result was temporary chaos. A bak-borð oar, forward of Ragnail's and Vilhammar's amidships, clashed with the idler's oar. Smooth progress was interrupted. Of course, it happened again. Ragnail was determined, despite the snarling condemnation of 79 of his fellows.  

Ragnail's father soon had enough. "Get your lazy arse off that bench and out of the way," he ordered in exasperation, “let one of the reserves take your place.” 'We'll take twice as long to reach Northanhymbra with that waster at the oars,' thought Bjorn-Agen. 'What offence have I offered the Gods to have sired such a son?' His train of thought followed a familiar course. With a sigh, he turned to face the prow, and with a hand to his Mjolnir pendant, muttered a plea to the thunder god. "O mighty Thor, imbue my son Ragnail with enough recklessness to get him through the gates of Valhalla ahead of his time. He's enough of a Viking to appreciate the company, especially the nightly drinking bouts. Aboard my skeið, he's just a liability." Ragnail too offered a prayer; to Loki. “Thanks for the inspiration O Trickster.”

The raiders drew up their ships on the sands at the mouth of the River Wear. Seven ships and crews. Just short of 600 warriors a-viking. Land was struck near a settlement known as Monkwearmouth, in what once was the kingdom of Beornice. There was little point in returning to Lindisfarne as it had been picked clean of booty in recent years, since that first invasion in 793. This latest flotilla of reivers went further south, albeit still in the territory of their erstwhile neighbours, the Angles. A longship's contingent, 90 or so warriors, was left to guard the ships. A force sufficient to deter any but the most resolute of armed defenders. King Æthelred's kingdom of Northanhymbra slumbered on, in denial of any Viking threat.

Ragnail had been rudely awoken from his slumbers with a boot in the ribs. “Wake up, you scurvy ragbag,” ordered his father, “we've got some raping and pillaging to do. Get yourself overboard and help push Gullhyrndr up the beach.” A wet Ragnail, soaked from the waist down, had struggled ashore after the unwelcome exertions. He'd grabbed the tools of his trade, sword, axe and shield, and announced, “I'll wait here with the ships' guard, Pa.” “Like Helgrind you will!” retorted Ragnail's father, “You're coming with me m'lad. I want to see you carve your reputation as a vikinger. I want to see your sword run red with Christian blood. I want to hear the sound of your axe chopping Angles' flesh.” Ragnail's head drooped. 'All that effort,' he sulked, 'and it's highly likely there'll be only monks to rape.' Bjorn-Agen laughed. Crestfallen, Ragnail had taken a place in line and off they'd marched.

The smoke from cooking fires drew the men towards Monkwearmouth, where they came upon St Peter's Church, an outlier of the Abbey at Jarrow. The Vikings didn't know that at first, of course. To them, it was head for the nearest settlement and create havoc. St Peter's Church just got unlucky. Thirteen bodies testified to that. The thirteenth eventually testified to the existence of the Abbey. It was poor Will's last testament. He died a cruel, martyr's death. You may imagine the gore. There are no words... The brutalities over, for the moment, another crew of fourscore and ten was left behind to mop up what could be found in the church and settlement. The others marched on tirelessly with Bjorn-Agen to Jarrow and its Abbey. Ragnail marched tiredly alongside his father.

There was a surfeit of monks in the Abbey community when the Northmen arrived. Shortly afterwards, a scarcity prevailed. It was about three centuries too early for friars, but the pillagers were unaware of the irony when they toasted some of the more belligerent monks, for fun. Ragnail had been ordered to collect wood for the fire and, true to form, he'd skimped on the task. Several pews, smashed asunder into jagged planks and broken uprights with protruding nails, and, more irony, a handy stack of firewood, were the bulk of what he bothered to amass. Lantern oil-soaked monks' robes sufficed to get the fire going, and Ragnail was spared more labour. He sloped off in search of some lightweight loot to plunder.

What little the Northmen discovered of monks could be summed up by one word: insincerity. Supposedly ascetic, living a frugal existence characterised by abstinence and the renunciation of material possessions (according to Wikipedia), the monks had a surprising hoard of silver and gold. A goodly portion of it was ostensibly for religious purposes. There were silver plates, goblets and the like, and a gold-inlaid chest containing a wooden Christian cross decorated with more gold. “A cup is a cup and a sup a sup, blood of the Christians' nailed-up god or not,” Ragnail ventured. “A wooden beaker would do just as well,” he added. “Aye!” said Bjorn-Agen, “the manifestation of their beliefs is overfull of symbolism. We too have symbols, but the val-tivar in Ásgarðr don't demand we carve and erect effigies in their honour. Their hypocrisy stinks worse than thon monks' a-burning. What else have you found, Ragnail; what's that you have there?”

Apparently, the denial of material possessions excluded lavishly produced religious books, decorated with a variety of inks produced from expensively imported raw materials. “Take a look at this. These boards enclose coloured images and what looks like some form of rúni. I don't recognise the rún-craft though. They're covered in leather and inlaid with silver and some gold,” responded Ragnail. “I assume they represent Christian events. Strange that they need to record them like that. A skáld would die of embarrassment if he forgot how to recite a saga. The images are a bit strange, too. Each figure seems to be carrying its own sun on its head.”  

Bjorn-Agen pondered. “Looks to me as if there's enough silver on one of those covers to fund a local fishing boat for some years.” “You could buy or sell half a hundred slaves in Frankia for that amount of silver,” returned Ragnail. “We'd not get as much for the likes of these monks. They're too well-fed to fetch a good price as they are,” mused the father. “Seems like abstinence and fasting is only for the peasants around here,” he continued. “Well, they'll lose a good deal of bodyweight by the time we have them lined up on the pier in Sklavenshavn,” ventured Ragnail. Northmen suffered no qualms of conscience from their raiding. On the contrary, they felt a keen sense of justification at relieving the monks of their ill-gotten gains.

“I'll leave you to round up all these silver- and gold-inlaid image-blocks, whatever you'd call them, Ragnail. See to it you don't leave any behind. For what they're bound in, they're valuable.” “Aye, father, you can rely on me,” responded Ragnail with a thoughtful look. 'These monks are slaves already,' he considered. “Let's put them to work, then,” he said aloud, having made up his mind to avoid unnecessary exertion, as usual. “You, you, and you,” Ragnail ordered, “get that fire going again, and find a pot to put these things in, so I can melt down these metals. What do you call these blocks anyway, monk?” he asked the less pathetic and fraught-looking of the three. All three monks looked appalled at their slaver, almost more so than when the brothers had been toasted earlier in the day. 

“Noooo!” they chorused, to a monk. “May the good God Almighty strike you down for an unredeemable sinner. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you cannot burn our books. That's sacrilege,” they yelled in unison, tears of seeming fury, rather than fear, streaming down their cheeks. “Nope, it's entirely practical and is going to save my sacred arse from the chore of carrying it all back to our longships in the bay. Far better to carry just the valuables, especially when we have to transport everything back to Katgut. Come to think of it, I'm not carrying anything; you lot are.” Ragnail's true character surfaced. 'Why exercise myself when there are slaves about,' he determined inwardly. “Get that fire going, and one of you fetch a wheelbarrow.” Ragnail menaced the monks. Hand on sword hilt, he motioned with his axe in a gesture that left nothing to the imagination. The monks, wailing inconsolably, cheeks wet with tears, got down to work.

Some hours later, two monks, labouring under the weight of sacks of melted-down precious metals, staggered along the path in the direction of Monkwearmouth. Weary monks indeed, down in the mouth and resigned to their fate as slaves, and seemingly deserted by their god, despite constant prayer. At least they were still physically alive, even if their spirits were suffering a near-death. The two monks were followed by Ragnail. He was neither labouring nor staggering. Perched in a wheelbarrow, Ragnail was being rolled on his way by the third monk. His personal coterie of slaves was being put to good use, from his point of view.

An almighty cheer greeted Ragnail on his return to the longships. A spontaneous round of laughter, and applause too. His fellow warriors undoubtedly appreciated his sense of humour and occasion, even if they resented his lack of application when it came down to hard work. “Well, my lad, you've excelled yourself there,” exclaimed a delighted Bjorn-Agen. “Glad to see you've used a bit of initiative. You've exercised your brains if not your body. True to form.” A beaming Ragnail saluted his father and ordered his monks aboard Gullhyrndr. “You three are taking my place at the oar, all the way back to Katgut,” he informed the slaves. “And I'm going to take it easy while you do so,” he beamed. “There's something to be said for this reiving and pillaging lark after all.”



Sunday, 12 January 2020

Questions and Answer

Questions and Answer


About learning from history?
It's proven we don't.
Hearken to the familiar sounds
of small arms fire and the cries
of the bereft. Hearken
to the old racket; the sale of arms
and capitalist gain. Hearken
to the fable of belling the cat:
mice needn't attempt the impossible task
as predator stalks in the open and seeks
not to hide intent. And afterwards
there is only the licking of lips.
Will we ever learn?
It's first tae care we maun learn.

From a wee bit poem by J. F. Hendry

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Halloween – the Ghost of Empire

Halloween – the Ghost of Empire


North of the Wall they cried
not for glory, nor riches, nor honours
will we fight, but for freedom.

Elsewhere in Albion the people cried
we want to take back control;
we want freedom to choose.

And granted choice they chose
junk food, Union Jacks, DIY,
and binging Hate Island on TV.

Come Halloween poor souls they'll see
in mirrors orange pumpkin masks
and the shadows of freedom and choice.

Ol' Jack-o'-Lantern struck a deal
and from the cliff said Let the fuckers squeal.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Assange

Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

Assange


He shone a torch on dirty deeds
they'd rather kept concealed.
The news was not their secrets, but
that they had been revealed.

A martyr failed for seven years;
press freedom but a jest.
What future for a Fourth Estate
who'd banner his arrest?

The arms deals and the cover-ups
were published so we'd know
just how debased they really were,
as files and emails show.

Beware the empire with a grudge;
they'll try to press him out.
He's charged with being guilty, and
there is no room for doubt.

A martyr failed for seven years;
press freedom but a jest.
What future for a Fourth Estate
who'd banner his arrest?

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Integrity




Integrity





It makes of the news a pseudonym
that speaks for power, of the truth a knot
you'd hardly untie, so neatly laced, of its cause
the point of view, betraying its craft. It makes of their tweets
a copy 'n' paste, of their hokum a science, of their task
a kowtowing they'd never admit, of their stance
on this – and this – and this – the same as the master's voice
they hear as a fix. It takes the meaning of bold
beyond barefaced, breaks the bond of trust, and it just
makes the holding of truth to power a joke, of bias
a jape. It's a pitiful thing this toeing the line,
this dissolute lack of morals, of spunk, and here's the rub: 
if they don't play the game and echo its lies,
they'll never be honoured with a Pulitzer Prize.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Piepsie MacFutret's circus act

Piepsie MacFutret's circus act


Scene 1


Piepsie MacFutret was a curious girl. I don't mean she was strange. I mean she was inquisitive. In fact, she was particularly prying. In the town where she lived, she was notably nosy.

If you were to encounter her in the supermarket checkout queue, where you'd no means of escape other than to desert your shopping on the conveyor belt, she'd discover your entire life's history before you knew where you were.

Not that she'd be insistently interrogative. No. Her approach was more subtle than that. She'd wheedle your best kept secrets out of you with no more than a toss of her blonde locks and a raised eyebrow.

Perhaps that had something to do with her inclination to be a secret agent. She didn't want to be a spy. She didn't want to become an asset. She wanted to be an agent on active duty. That was the vocation she envisaged for herself. That was to be her calling.

Piepsie MacFutret saw herself as the heir of Polish countess Krystyna Skarbek. She was ever on the lookout for an opportunity to emulate the exploits of her Polish heroine. And so it was that one day in Salisbury as she was minding everyone else's business, she overheard two Russians talking. У тебя есть флакон духов, мой друг? was what she heard.

Like all good secret agents, Piepsie MacFutret was fluent in Russian. Also, in keeping with her calling, she was ever on the alert for the odd, the unusual and the incongruous. As she'd just been to Boots the Chemist to buy some scent for her grandmother, it won't surprise you to learn that both her ears pricked up; one at the familiar sound of Russian voices, and one at the mention of a perfume bottle.

Bending down to tie her shoelace (as per Manual for Agents; ch. 3 – How to be inconspicuous; pg. 153 – tactic #4; pub. J. Bond, London, 1955), Piepsie MacFutret pinned back her ears and discretely observed the two Russians.

Both were fairly nondescript, dressed for the inclement weather, except for city shoes. They'd have been better off with footwear appropriate to the pavement slush. Indeed, the initial snatches of conversation that Piepsie MacFutret overheard were on that very topic. There was no further mention of perfume. One mentioned the Cathedral. Unsurprisingly enough for a visitor to Salisbury. One made reference to a call girl and a sex act. That caused Piepsie MacFutret to blush bright pink. Nevertheless, with a silent nod to Mata Hari, she continued her eavesdropping.

These guys seem suspiciously shady, she mused to herself, I must find out what they're doing in Salisbury. Undeterred, and fortified by a drink she'd indulged in at the Mill pub, she approached the two men.

“Excuse me,” she interrupted, “pardon me for interrupting, but I thought I heard you mention the Cathedral. Are you looking to be awed by the beauty and scale of our Cathedral interior?”

“Что за хрень!” responded the darker-haired Russian, before recovering his equilibrium and responding in English.

Piepsie MacFutret was a trifle disappointed at that. She'd thought her Russian accent pretty good. As she was making a mental note to address that shortcoming, the Russian's response continued.

“...been to your Cathedral of 750 years. Yesterday, isn't it, Aleksandr?”

Aleksandr nodded. The quiet one, thought Piepsie MacFutret, I'll struggle to get much out of him. However, the loud one, responding to Piepsie MacFutret's perfected penetrating persuasiveness and raised eyebrow (well, it used to work for Roger Moore), began to talk and explain his intentions in detail, in the manner of all fictional villains.

“Today, we're looking for a place to hide this perfume,” he volunteered, brandishing a still packaged bottle he'd taken out of a red carrier bag. “Have you any idea where Maltings place be?” he questioned. “By way, my name Ruslan, and here Alexsandr. How you do, Miss..?”

Ignoring the impulse to respond with Bond, Jane Bond, Piepsie MacFutret inquired instead with a further raised and questioning eyebrow. Unsurprisingly, more information was forthcoming.

“We're on weekend break paid for by man with military bearing. He arranged Visas. Fast-tracked. Said all we have to do is hide bottle he gives. Said for April Fool's Day. Said play joke on friend Sergei. Said not open or we don't return St. Petersburg without pay penalty.”

“Were those your only instructions?” asked Piepsie MacFutret, neglecting the eyebrow.

“Officer-type said make sure we get on CCTV cameras and leave perfume in waste bin in Maltings,” answered Ruslan.

“But we not find it,” rejoined the hitherto unspoken Aleksandr.

“That's right,” confirmed the Russian, Ruslan. “Map not faithful.”

“Let me see your map,” demanded Piepsie MacFutret.

Ruslan handed over a creased and roughly folded sheet of A4, which proved to be the bearer of a hand-drawn map. Seemingly, the artist was conceited, because his initials – PM – had been scribbled in the bottom right-hand corner. Piepsie MacFutret didn't fail to notice that. Nor did she fail to notice the initials too were hers.

Curiously, the map appeared to have been drawn upside down, but with the street names the right way up. No wonder the Russians were confused, she figured. They didn't look over intelligent in any case, in her view. She was good at instant assessments of character. And no, she wasn't particularly prejudiced against Russians. In any event, it was clear to Piepsie MacFutret that the two Russians were on a hiding to nothing in relation to their mysterious undertaking.

Piepsie MacFutret pocketed the map. Neither Ruslan nor Aleksandr appeared to notice her sleight of hand. These guys do seem to be a bit dim, she concluded. I'm more interested in PM, was the thought that followed. Curiosity aroused, Piepsie MacFutret nevertheless controlled her agitation (but not her eyebrow) and tempted poor Ruslan to tell her more.

“Where did you meet the man who gave you the map, Ruslan?”

“In a hotel in East London. In Bow Road,” responded the Russian.

“It's called the City something,” offered Aleksandr.

“Look, sorry, it's time for we leave. We got train to London. We going back to the Russia today,” ejaculated Ruslan as if he felt they'd already said too much. “Perhaps you hide perfume in Maltings? Easy for you,” he took time to propose, before a pathetic, “Please!”

Piepsie MacFutret took the proffered perfume. She had already formulated a plan. So much for the Nina Ricci Premier Jour she'd bought for her grandmother. She'd gained a 50cc bottle of Chanel No. 5, for free. She waved a thankful Adieu to the two Russian patsies. They walked off in the direction of the railway station. Piepsie MacFutret walked off in the direction of the Maltings shopping centre. She carried with her the two packages of perfume.

As she strolled off, she mulled over the coincidence of the Chanel fragrance having been compounded by a Russian, albeit with a French Connection. She chuckled to herself as she slipped the Nina Ricci into the Russian's carrier bag and put the Chanel in her handbag. Laughing out loud, she chucked the bag into a refuse bin next to a bench. It's been both a profitable and an interesting day, she concluded. So far.

Scene 2


Piepsie MacFutret was intrigued and determined to find out more about the mystery of the strange and curious case of the Russian visitors. She felt she had two clues to work on for a start. Those were the initials – PM – and the name Sergei. There was certainly a connection between the two, as the Russians had indicated, more or less, that they were at least acquainted if not necessarily bosom buddies. Was Sergei a Russian? Most probably, proposed Piepsie MacFutret. Let's begin with that, she agreed.

At home, armed with her own personal computer, and employing extreme digital forensic skills learned on a half-day seminar run by Bellingcat, Piepsie MacFutret set to work. First, she carefully typed the name – Sergei – one letter at a time, on the computer's keyboard, just like that nice Mr Higgins has suggested. Imagine her surprise when seconds later, she had discovered almost everything there was to know about Sergei, who was indeed Russian, but had become an MI6 asset.

Sergei had been a naughty boy. He'd been discovered traitorously selling information to the west.  Thereafter, he'd been arrested, tried and jailed, eventually released, and subsequently swapped in an exchange involving a red-headed Russian spy who wouldn't have been out of place in a Bond movie. Thankfully for Sergei, the Russians had long since stopped sending undesirables to resorts like Kolyma in Siberia. They'd gotten a bad press for that, thanks to Solzhenitsyn and other novelists.

So Sergei Scruples had come to live in Salisbury. What a man for a neighbour, thought Piepsie MacFutret.

To prove that this was her man, Piepsie MacFutret searched online for images of Sergei Scruples. Almost immediately, she found three images of a Sergei Scruples. She found a mugshot taken when the double agent named Scruples was swapped. She found a Russian passport photograph for a Sergei Viktorovich Scruples, and a photograph used by a Sergei Scruples when applying for a new driving licence, in the mid-1980s, in Ozyorsk. Using open source facial recognition software, she did an image comparison and discovered that, with a greater than 85% degree of certainty, the three images were the same Sergei Viktorovich Scruples she was seeking to identify.

To be convinced, she took the earliest photograph; the one from the driving licence, and again using open source software, she aged the photograph by 20 years. Sure enough, she got a high-probability match with the one from the time of the Illegals Program spy swap. It was Sergei Scruples all right.

Having been staring at images of Sergei during the evening, Piepsie MacFutret came to the realisation that she'd seen him somewhere before. Quite recently in fact, she was convinced. Irritated at her temporary loss of total recall, she got herself some more Kenco (product placement). She then asked herself where it was that she'd seen Sergei Scruples.

Piepsie MacFutret was never perplexed for long. The answer came in the flash of a smartphone camera. She had her own photograph of Sergei. Captured involuntarily, Sergei Scruples appeared on the periphery of a photograph of Piepsie MacFutret's grandmother. The photograph was taken in Zizzis Restaurant. Only last Sunday, she realised. Sergei was there at the table in front of the large wall mirror. And he wasn't alone.

There was a man in the photograph alongside Sergei. However, only his left side; arm, shoulder, torso and leg, were visible on the edge of the image. Digital forensics isn't going to help sort that conundrum, decided Piepsie MacFutret. But a visit to Zizzis on the morrow, a Sunday, might mean they'd both be there again, and if so... Well, who knows what Piepsie MacFutret might find out as she continued her inquisitive quest.

Scene 3


Piepsie MacFutret arrived at Zizzis Restaurant at noon on the Sunday and settled in for a wait. Long or short, she didn't know, but she was prepared. She had with her a good book and, more to the point, an appetite.

On her third cafe latte, after a pasta garnished with chicken and embellished with a Pinot Grigio, her patience was rewarded. Sergei and a female companion entered the restaurant just before 2 p.m., and took a table in front of the mirror. Piepsie MacFutret gave them a wee while to settle in and order. After they'd been served their drinks, Piepsie MacFutret determined to act. Thinking along the lines of nothing ventured, nothing gained, she approached Sergei's table.

“Excuse me,” interrupted Piepsie MacFutret, “I couldn't help overhearing you speaking in Russian. I don't get much opportunity to practice your language in Salisbury. Do you mind if we have a short conversation? I know that's an almighty cheek on my part, but I won't take up much of your time. It would be great to practice a little Russian.”

“No, not at all. Please join us. It's delightful to find yet another Russian speaker in Salisbury,” responded Sergei. “May I introduce my daughter, Yulia.”

The two girls exchanged how d'you dos. Piepsie MacFutret sat down alongside Sergei's daughter and introduced herself to the familial pair.

“You're somewhat of a minor celebrity, Mr. Scruples,” prompted Piepsie MacFutret, “Not that you have any. How do you find our much vaunted Salisbury cathedral compared to that overdecorated and draughty barn in Prague?”

Sergei laughed at the provocation, but chose to ignore it, “Yes, I was awed by the beauty and scale of the Cathedral interior,” he responded.

Piepsie MacFutret wanted to say talk like John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda talked to Jamie Lee Curtis, but said instead, “Tell me all your secrets.”

Sergei began to talk at length. The magic eyebrow had done its trick again.

“I'm quite settled here in Salisbury, you know, Miss MacFutret,” Sergei began.

“Call me Piepsie, please,” interjected Piepsie MacFutret.

“Piepsie then, Miss... Piepsie-Please,” laughed Sergei in good humour. “I still do a bit of consultancy, if I can put it like that, for MI6. That gets me the odd trip abroad now and again. And Paco pops round for a chat on a regular basis.”

“Paco?” queried Piepsie MacFutret's eyebrow.

“Paco Müller, my old handler from when I turned,” responded Sergei, adding, “We like to have a vodka or three and talk about the old times.”

“Don't you feel intimidated or under threat from your former masters?” interrogated Piespie MacFutret, with an ingratiating smile and that raised eyebrow, unfailingly noting Paco's initials and mentally linking them with those on the map.

“Oh no, not at all. Russia is very good to me, considering my past. They let my daughter freely come and go to visit me here, and my family, my poor old mother, they're all left in peace back home in Ozyorsk. As a matter of fact, I'm in constant touch with the GU. But don't tell Paco, eh.” Sergei winked conspiratorially and went on, “We had a right good laugh at all that crap I fed him to keep that Steele chappie happy.”

“Does the mention of Chanel perfume mean anything to you Mr. Scruples?” ventured Piepsie MacFutret.

“Perfume!” exclaimed Sergei, “Ha, ha! That's a good question. Here's a secret I shouldn't tell you, but, well, that eyebrow... I've had to agree to a scam set up by MI6 to discredit Russia. No choice! It's due to happen after Yulia goes back. We're going to fake an attempt on my life and blame it on the GU. The basic story line is that a perfume bottle will be used to spray me with some nasty stuff, but it won't be fatal. Hopefully! MI6 has already set up a couple of Russian patsies to take the rap for the perfume. And some tame journalists are already primed to big up the story of incompetent GU hitmen. Bellingcat will also get involved from what I understand, to help frame the two Russians.”

“Wow! That's a distinctly deceitful disinformation scam to put into action,” exclaimed Piepsie MacFutret, “are our secret services that immoral?” she added incredulously.

“You had better believe it!” responded Sergei, before reacting astonished at something, or so it appeared, that he'd seen over Piepsie MacFutret's shoulder.

“You'd better leave us now Miss MacFutret,” announced Sergei in a tone that brooked no argument.

Piepsie withdrew to her own table without that argument, knowing full well she'd be able to observe what happened in the restaurant. What happened in the restaurant was that a man approached Sergei, nodded familiarly to Sergei's daughter, and said something to her father. Piepsie MacFutret's directional hearing prowess was excellent, but she wasn't able to determine what was said, but by the look on Sergei's face, she understood that what had been imparted wasn't exactly good news.

Sergei's mood changed and over the next half an hour or so, he made a complete exhibition of himself, to the extent of being rude to the staff and complaining loudly about the time needed to bring his meal. All that to the apparent embarrassment of his daughter, Yulia. Piepsie MacFutret left them in peace, if such as Sergei's noticeable agitation could be so called, to their meal, which they ate in a hurry. During that period, Piepsie MacFutret made sure she settled her bill, so that she could leave immediately the Scruples did, if she felt it necessary.

The Scruples left Zizzis just before 3 p.m. On his way past Piepsie MacFutret's table, Sergei looked over towards her and made a slicing motion across his throat with the edge of his hand. He then made a forward spiralling motion with the hand, as if to suggest speeding up. Or bringing something forward, thought Piepsie MacFutret. The staged attempt on his life, no doubt, she realised.

Scene 4


Piepsie MacFutret felt it necessary to follow the Scruples. She kept her distance, expertly tailing them all the way via Market Walk to the Mill pub in the Maltings. She followed them inside. At the bar, Sergei ordered two glasses of wine and presently, went to the toilet. On his return to the bar, Sergei, to Piepsie MacFutret's eyes, appeared to be a little unsteady on his feet. She thought, he's surely not drunk, not after what little he's drank. Maybe he carries a hip flask of vodka, she mused. While Piepsie MacFutret was chuckling at that thought, Sergei and Yulia promptly left the pub, without finishing their drinks.

Piepsie MacFutret again dashed out after the pair and observed them make their way to a park bench, on which they sat. It was a pleasant place to pause for a rest, overlooking the river Avon. Looking at her watch, she logged the fact that it was a twenty to four in the afternoon, give or take a minute.

Hanging back to remain unobserved, Piepsie MacFutret surveyed the surroundings. Nothing untoward caught her attention on a first pass sweep through the area around the Scruples. Sweeping her gaze left to right and left again, quartering the foreground, her attention was suddenly caught by what looked for all the world like a man wearing a black mask. The mask was big enough to cover his nose and mouth. He's acting rather suspiciously, thought Piepsie MacFutret, and he's made a proper effort to remain incognito, she added as a note to her mental event recorder. She also noted that he was carrying a red bag.

Scene 5


Piepsie MacFutret struggled awake. Her last conscious cognitive cerebration reeled like a fairground roller coaster through her head; black mask; red bag; ex-red; Sergei Scruples... The process receded into her subconscious as she concentrated on becoming fully awake.

Finally awake and fully cognisant, she found herself in a sparsely furnished, windowless room. It was painted in the palest green colour she recognised as regulation eau de Nil. Sitting upright on a hard-backed chair, she became aware of the man sat opposite her. He was smiling at her. It wasn't a particularly friendly smile, but a smile nevertheless. OK, Smiley, she thought calmly, what have you got to say for yourself.

When the smiling man saw that he had her full attention, he greeted her in an amused and friendly voice, “Welcome to Vauxhall Cross, Miss MacFutret. Or should I say, welcome to The Circus.”

The end

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Epiphany

Epiphany


Before he saw the trees
all that he saw was forest.
A barrier to progress it seemed,
in the manner of a nuisance.
Armed with writ of might means right
the woodsman's fate was sealed.
Defenestrate he yelled aloud
and put the lumbering jerks to work.
Inside the wood some trees agreed,
cried Infidel and Oaks must die.
But once exposed along the road
to trees unique from roots to leaves,
his eyes were opened and the voice
of Christ said Saul! You have a choice.