Authors: Michael Dobbs
WHISPERS OF BETRAYAL
For Jill Dando.
An everlasting friend.
Peter Amadeus swore softly to himself as he stepped out from beneath the shelter of the theatre doorway and into the semi-darkness. Shaftesbury Avenue was under assault from the rain and was on the point of surrendering. Gutters ran with garbage and puddles like oil slicks were collecting on the cracked pavement. Even here, in the heart of the West End, it seemed that London was falling apart. Its streets echoed to the constant noise of nothing, while strangers huddled inside their cars, cutting corners so they could be the first to arrive at the next traffic jam, sounding their horns in impatience as they splashed down life’s muddy road. No one gave a damn about anyone else. That’s what life in the city was all about.
He lit a cigarette, drawing deep on nicotine and dank night air. The evening lights reflected from the damp roadway, forming a chorus line of red-and-yellow neon that danced around the soaked shoes of two figures beside a taxi. They were coming close to blows. One door handle, two hands. Raised voices. A dispute over occupation rights. Wars had been started for less, Amadeus supposed, but only by politicians.
Beyond the battle, on the other side of the Avenue, Amadeus searched for signs of his country, the homeland for which he had fought and on more than one occasion almost died. He found a Turkish restaurant, a Balti house, a pizzeria and three Chinese wok shops brushing up against a branch of his own bank that recently had been taken over by the French. There may be some small corner which was forever England, but it wasn’t here.
He’d been right first time. Bugger London.
Black fingers of rain began to burrow their way behind Amadeus’s collar. He shrugged, welcoming them like old friends, stamping impatiently as he waited for his wife. Marriage, he had long
since concluded, was much like an examination of his prostate, something that left him wanting to be on his own for a while. She was still inside the foyer where he had left her, cheeks flushed, voice trilling as though in the heat of sexual excitement, launching opinions on a tide of gin-and-diet-tonic about a performance that had pitted two notorious thespian queens against each other, locked in a battle for inclusion in the Birthday Honours List. The only sort of combat they were fit for. And as close as she’d got to an orgasm in years. Unless, of course, she’d been …
Suddenly he felt the blood drain from his cheeks, overwhelmed by one of those fleeting moments of honesty that left him feeling physically sick. Who the hell was he to sneer at others? Amadeus was nothing but a paper warrior, whose weapons were bulldog clips. Whose battlefield was a bursar’s desk at some inconsequential fee-paying school in the suburbs, whose only recent victories were against misdirected invoices, and whose Commanding Officer was a woman intent on exacting exquisite revenge for the years she’d spent following in the dust of his career. A once-and-would-be man who now smoked too much and swore too little, who over-tightened his belt and whose bed was as cold as an Arctic foxhole. Who found himself lingering outside playhouses like some cuckold in the rain.
He needed more narcotic. He lit another cigarette. He wasn’t to know that it was a cigarette that would change the course of his life.
Life disgusts Amadeus – no, it’s worse than that. He disgusts himself or, more precisely, is disgusted at what he’s become.
His mind wanders. He’s no longer on the steps of the theatre but back behind his desk in the office at Aldershot where he commands 3 Para. He distrusts this desk, indeed any desk, and despises the fact that so much of modern soldiering is fought from behind barricades of paper. It’s one of the reasons why he leads from the front, hoping to leave much of the paperwork scattered in his wake. This is also why his battalion will follow him anywhere, for Amadeus is a soldier’s soldier.
Yet some pieces of paper refuse to be ignored.
After months of deliberation, the Defence Council has reached its judgement. The Army has been weighed in the scales that balance
political convenience against the many bad cheques signed by politicians at election time, and it has lost. An Army that once ruled a quarter of the globe and refused to bow to Thug or Zulu or Hun is to be brought to its knees by a mixture of recession and the awesome incompetence of its political masters, who have ordained that an entire third – the legs, one arm and both balls – is to be hacked off. Discarded. The letters of redundancy have just arrived by courier. They are sitting on Amadeus’s desk, accompanied by details of the appeals procedure and glossy brochures about how to survive in the life ever after. More worthless paper.
It is Thursday. The letters are to be locked away in the regimental safe waiting for distribution to the miserable wretches concerned on Monday. Amadeus, of course, has been told that he is entirely bombproof, that his exceptional military record stretching from the battlefields of Goose Green to Bosnia and the Bogside means that his position is beyond question. They can’t touch him.
So why is his own name on one of the envelopes?
They’d avoided him after that, all his colleagues and fellow officers who had any part of the decision and who might have been able to tell him why.
Why? Why me?
In fact, it was true, Amadeus had been bombproof, right up until the very last moment. The computers of the Directorate of Manning had whirred and identified the targets for redundancy by age and by rank, and Amadeus only just crept into the zone. When the Army Establishments Committee had sat in deliberation, they’d even asked Amadeus to give evidence.
Perhaps his evidence had something to do with it. The five members of the committee had sat like hooded crows in Historic Room 27 on the third floor of the Ministry of Defence, beneath chandeliers that hung from a magnificent stucco ceiling and lit walls crowded with oils in gilded frames. They were here to discuss economies. Cuts. Surrender. The chairman was a brigadier with a reputation for soaking up whisky in much the same manner as a teabag soaks up hot water, a process that afterwards left them in much the same condition. The only traces of colour in his face were
the red rims of his eyes and the reflection of last night’s decanter that still clung stubbornly around his cheeks.
‘I’m still not sure, Colonel Amadeus, why you insist that an air mobile brigade couldn’t be commanded by another cap badge. Perhaps a Royal Marine, say, rather than by a Para officer.’
‘I would have no problem with that.’
‘Really? But I thought you’d just been telling us at some length and with considerable vehemence why putting a Royal Marine in charge of a parachute unit would be tantamount to disaster.’
‘But the Parachute Regiment is not an air mobile unit, Brigadier. We’re air-
, part of the airborne brigade. The sort of rapid deployment unit that took the Rhine crossings and Goose Green and –’
‘Yes, yes! A slip of the tongue, Colonel, you know what I mean!’
‘You ask me how we might make economies in the Parachute Regiment without undermining its effectiveness. I tell you it’s not possible. Our political masters cut the Army by a third in the 1990s, yet they kept tasking us to do more. Not just in Northern Ireland but Cyprus and Bosnia and Kosovo and Timor and Angola. And now they want to cut another third? It’s madness. Madness! They’ll be able to fit the entire British Army inside Wembley Stadium and still leave plenty of room for the other team’s supporters. Although come to think of it, we might have to leave the tank outside.’
‘No need for impertinence, Colonel.’
‘My apologies, sir. Must have been a slip of the tongue.’
The brigadier’s red eyes flashed mean and filled with the desire for retribution. ‘Let me return you to the issue. Economies have to be made, those are our instructions. So the armed forces must become more flexible. After all, since the end of the Cold War there’s no longer a need for great standing armies –’
‘Which is why we need to be more flexible and mobile. Which is why we need the Paratroopers.’
‘The threat is more “up and down”, if you like, I’ll grant you that. Yes, more flexible, I agree. So why not use the Territorial Army to plug any gaps at a time of occasional crisis?’
God, watching this man fumble with his brief was like watching a child play with a loaded pistol in the school playground. ‘The Territorial Army, sir?’
‘Yes, the Territorials, Colonel.’
‘You mean the same Territorial Army that the Government cut in half only three years ago? It would be easier to plug the gaps with traffic wardens. There’s more of them to spare.’
‘Take care about your tone, Colonel. We have a job to do here. It may be distasteful but do it we shall.’
‘So who’s going to stand up for the Army, then?’
‘I resent that, sir! I’ll have you know that my ancestors fought at Waterloo.’
‘On which side?’
The brigadier was out of his chair as though a grenade had rolled beneath it. ‘Enough! We’ve heard enough from you, Colonel. Evidence over!’
Typical of bloody Amadeus, they all said, and smiled. Yes, somebody had to stand up for the Army. Amadeus was safe.
Until the last minute. For it was only at the last minute, as the main outlines of the recommendations were being prepared for consideration by Downing Street, that someone remembered the Prime Minister had a constituency interest, a Royal Marine base on his doorstep, and a majority that was anything but robust. So the Royal Marines had to be spared. The outlines were redrawn and an additional lieutenant colonel from the Parachute Regiment was put in the slot instead.
They couldn’t tell him that, of course, couldn’t even hint they’d destroyed his career for the convenience of the Prime Minister, so many of them simply avoided him. They left it to a wretched captain to meet him when he travelled up to the Personnel Centre of the Military Secretariat in Glasgow to exercise his right of appeal. (He was meant to be seen by a colonel, equivalent rank, but the colonel in question had heard of Amadeus’s reputation for being bloody-minded and had suddenly discovered a mountain of urgent paperwork to sort through. So he’d delegated and the captain had drawn the short straw.) The Personnel Centre was next to the bus station, a place which came complete with its full quota of derelicts and dossers, men with outstretched hands and reluctant eyes who
had been unable to manage some transition in their lives. Former soldiers, perhaps. As Amadeus passed them by he wondered with a flash of alarm whether he might even have served with some of them. Yesterday’s heroes. He hurried on, ashamed.
The Personnel Centre was gaunt, built of red brick, economic, cold. This was where he had come to argue for his life. Inside Amadeus found nothing but a heartless open-plan room with cheap industrial screens providing the only means of privacy. He also found the shifty little apple-polisher who passed as a captain in the New Model Army.
The captain had Amadeus’s file open in front of him. Twenty-five years’ worth of bravery and dedication. Top in ‘P’ Company. Director of Infantry’s Prize at Platoon Commander course. His tour with the SAS out of Hereford. Instructing at Sandhurst. And the battles – the South Atlantic, the Gulf, the Balkans. The season ticket to Northern Ireland and the Queen’s Gallantry Medal that went with it. Even the little details like Warren Point, where he’d shovelled what was left of his companions into plastic bags after the bomb. Everything was there. Not many files as thick as that in this place.
‘You’ve done extremely well, sir,’ the captain began. ‘I see from reports that you’ve had an excellent career …’ The captain read on, prattling, patronizing. Anything to avoid looking Amadeus in the face. ‘A difficult matter, sir. But you see, a decision had to be made. And I see you have a problem with dyslexia.’
‘It’s only a problem if you can’t tell the difference between an order to shit and shoot, sonny. Haven’t made that mistake yet. So how about you?’
‘You ever had an order to shoot?’
Flustered, the captain pushed a piece of paper across the table. ‘If you want to go through the formal appeals process, Colonel, you will need to fill in this form.’ More nervous shuffling of papers. ‘And I’ve got some additional details of the assistance we offer with resettlement, just in case.’ At last the captain summoned up the courage to look into Amadeus’s slate green eyes. ‘Do you need any help filling out the form, sir?’
Amadeus picked up the form, and with it a glass of water. His mouth had suddenly gone dry. And as he read, and sipped, he realized something had happened to him. Tiny almost imperceptible waves upon
the water in the glass were catching the light from the overhead bulb. As he watched, transfixed, he thanked all the gods that the bumped-up little creep of a captain couldn’t see what had happened.
For the first time in his life, Amadeus’s hand was shaking.
He is back outside the theatre, in the rain, feeling homeless in his own homeland. In a moment of silent fury he tosses away the half-burnt cigarette, the cigarette that will change his life, then in considerably less silence he mouths a curse more suited to a sergeants’ mess after the beer has run out. As the wind carries his curse away into the raw night, a figure darts from the shadows, barely dodging the front end of the now-departing taxi and forcing it to a sudden halt. The brakes screech in protest but the figure pays no heed. It is a figure that belongs to the night, of no definable appearance, swaddled in a grime-streaked blanket. A man, by its size, bent and scurrying awkwardly, with no apparent care in the world other than to retrieve the still-smouldering cigarette from the damp, evil pavement.