Off to London later. It will be my first in-person board meeting for 26 months to the date. It’s difficult to understand where those 26 months have gone, because it seems like yesterday that we sat around a table and talked about how we thought covid-19 was going to affect the world and the people we work with through my day job. Now we know. It’s been a massacre, and the Third Sector has been left to mop up a lot of the mess made by government. During Lockdown 1, I described how it felt like being on the front line, but in a hermetically sealed plate glass box, through which I was watching people die, people put their lives at risk, and people going beyond what they would, in normal times, be reasonably expected to do. And yet the well of kindness has not run dry, despite the exhaustion, despite the fears and the tragedies, despite everything. I think today will add another perspective to that, and we’ll reflect on how there is yet a long long way to go before the world is healed.
M came on my walk with me yesterday. We even held hands for part of it, and talked, and I spent some time venting about this and that, wondering why it felt like there was a heaviness inside me that was stopping me from being exuberantly happy, that was stopping me from running around there like some mad thing, which I might have done in my younger days. Covid-19 has a lot to do with that, having stopped normal social interaction, put a halt to impulsive things, seriously adversely affected all our children, and hindered their rites of passage. We have lived in almost total isolation for the last 26 months, and when we’ve not isolated we’ve been exceedingly careful. We still are, and I’ll not be treating my trip today as if it were a normal trip. I’ll be wearing a mask, keeping my distance as well as I can, not mingling, not pushing my way through crowds in the way I would have done 26 months ago, taking pleasure in side-stepping people who even then didn’t understand the meaning of personal space. The fact remains that, right now, I am seeing more staff shortages in the charities I work with than even during Lockdown 1, with covid-19 rampant in reality but not in the figures published by government, because hardly anyone is testing anymore, because LFTs are no longer free.
And on the periphery, England steeps itself in anachronism upon anachronism. An elderly man in a dress uniform who has never seen combat sits on a small golden throne next to a larger golden throne in a sumptuous chamber full of people dressed in fur and suits, deputising for an even older woman who might have worn a crown in days gone by, a crown, which sits on a velvet cushion next to him, and reads out words written for him by a government so bereft of ideas for legislation it tells him to read out lies upon lies and brings forth proposals for the removal of asylum seekers which are already being attacked in court. And the air is rank with hypocrisy as millions outside that golden chamber starve and can’t heat their homes or have nowhere to live. This. Is. England.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 87
Robert’s hand is on his steak knife, and Aggie’s huge hand on top of his before he can even lift the knife off the table. He laughs. ‘Just demonstrating,’ he says.
‘That there’s life in the old dog yet,’ he says. ‘Just a split second too slow to bring it into your side.’
‘You’d have to be more than a split second quicker than she is,’ Robert says. ‘She’s something special.’ He takes another forkful of his mushroom and brioche. ‘You can stop being silly people now, both of you.’
‘I’m right then,’ Aggie says, lets go of Martin’s hand, goes back to her plate of mushrooms.
‘Of course you are, my dear,’ Martin says. ‘I’m just surprised you got there so quickly. No hint of a Russian accent, the look of a perfect English gentleman in his suit and tie, the affected manner of a man of privilege, fine food. No real link to my old name in all but the first letter of it. How did you guess?’
‘I didn’t have to guess,’ Aggie says. ‘It’s fairly obvious.’
Robert puts his elbows on the table. ‘In what way is it obvious?’ he says. ‘No-one knows, not even his wife.’
‘He doesn’t talk in his sleep then?’ she says.
‘Don’ talk about me as if I wasn’t here,’ Martin says. ‘You can train yourself out of talking in your sleep.’
Aggie wonders if she talked in her coma, back then, when she was hooked up to the life-saving tubes, if that’s how the mentor could exercise power over her, knew things about her she herself had forgotten in any conscious state. ‘I know,’ she says.
‘Come on, then, woman,’ Martin says. ‘How did you know?’
‘Why else would you both meet every day, and pass information…’ Here she makes inverted commas in the air with her knife and fork. ‘To each other? You must still have contacts back there, maybe even directly in Putin’s inner circle, and Robert here still has his fingers in the Service’s pies. He keeps an eye on you as well, just to make sure you don’t go back to your old ways.’
‘Very clever,’ Martin says. He looks at Robert. ‘You’re right; she’s very special. Should we tell her she’s wrong?’
‘I rather think she’d see through that, old friend,’ Robert says. ‘No point denying it.’
‘But we do have to correct on on one small point, don’t we?’
‘I’ll leave that small pleasure to you,’ Robert says, wipes up the rest of the sauce and mushrooms with his last piece of brioche, his eyes bright with amusement.
‘Such a gentleman,’ Martin says, and puts down his cutlery, wipes his mouth with the thick linen serviette, puts that down on the table, too, and looks at all the others before he finally turns to Aggie, puts his right hand on her arm. ‘The only thing is that I’ve been working tirelessly to rid the world of Putin, and that the information I give my friend here is the information he needs to do exactly that.’
‘Except that Valentine turned from crusader into protector,’ she says.
‘Yes,’ Martin says. ‘Of his own causes. Of which Putin is just one.’ He pushes his plate away, signals the end of of the first course. ‘And now we need to get Putin and Valentine. At the same time.’
‘Cassandra,’ Aggie says.
‘Yes,’ Martin says. ‘Dear young Cassandra. Into the lion’s den. Dressed as a lamb to the slaughter.’
‘The box?’ Aggie says.
‘An unexpected mystery,’ Robert says.
‘A box?’ Martin says.
‘I shall try to explain,’ Robert says, leaning out of the way as the waiters approach again. ‘In the meantime, we should get another couple of bottles of this fine wine.’
‘Absolutely,’ Martin says. ‘A decent crisis always needs a decent wine to solve it.’