Episode 11 (of 18)
Just two months later I pulled into the car park at Southampton General railway station. There waiting for me was Svet, entirely encumbered with bags; a rucksack on her back, briefcase in hand and two huge holdalls on the ground beside her.
‘What on earth are in those?’
‘Oh books, reports, scientific studies … you know … the usual.’
I hauled the baggage into the van through the rear door and she climbed into the passenger seat in the cab.
‘How has the fieldwork gone Bo?’
‘Good, I think I’ve got it covered.’
She smiled at me, ‘Tell me all about it.’
I talked as I drove. I had used the past six weeks to familiarise myself with The Solent and Southampton Water from various vantage points along the Hampshire Coast. I found a number of places where I could get the van down to the water’s edge and check the tidal movements against the official tide tables. In most places this was straightforward and I neither drew any attention nor any censure – apart from at a static caravan park where the inhabitants seemed to think I was intending to set up for the duration and at Lepe Country Park where kids thought I was selling ice-creams. I found a few discrete places where I could snug up for the night, but kept moving around so as to maintain a low profile. I alternated this field work with a few days study in the General Reference Library in Southampton in an attempt to get to grips with the particular circumstances of The Solent and its tides.
We pulled up on Dock Head on the edge of Southampton Water. ‘This is a good place to start; you can see all the ships coming in and out.’
‘But what about Portsmouth, the naval base ….. you have been there haven’t you Bo?’
‘Oh yes, absolutely ….’, I faltered, ‘…..but discretely … not to attract attention and all that ….’
‘What did you find out?’
‘That Nelson’s tactics at the battle of Trafalgar were revolutionary – to cut through the enemy’s line was a masterstroke, neutralising half the Spanish / French fleet down wind and inflicting maximum damage on …’
‘Bo! What on earth are you talking about? Where did you learn this?’
‘On the tour of The Victory .. in the Historic Dockyard …. Thought it best to blend in with the crowds ……’
There was a slightly uncomfortable pause.
‘What did you find out about the submarines?’
‘The submarines? You know about the submarines?’
She moved closer to me, her eyes locked with mine, ‘Tell me’ .
I knew I was about to cross a red line that I had determined to draw when coming to terms with the brown envelope. I had decided that whatever nonsense I got involved in I wouldn’t divulge any real secrets (not that I thought I was ever likely to stumble over any) but I don’t mind telling you that when she looked at me like that she gave me the willies …. but I have to be honest, this was a particularly singular moment.
I was the proverbial putty. I told her all I had learnt about the sub base and the work about to start to upgrade it.
She leant back smiling and slightly shaking her head, ‘They said you were good… but that’s good intelligence Bo. We must report this immediately.’
She clambered into the habitation part of the van and pulled my old Olivetti out of its case. I sat miserably in the cab staring out across the oily, unsettling water.
‘You’d better start drafting it, keep it short, and I’ll dig the report form out of my briefcase. We want to get the credit for this.’
Aghast I turned to face her, was there no way of going back?
‘Where did you get your sources?’
I managed one of those grins that I think novelists describe as rictus.
‘Oh sorry Bo …. shouldn’t ask … it’s what Le Carre would call tradecraft yes?’
I felt my mouth relaxing into a big guffaw and laughed out loud.
‘I said sorry Bo,’ she looked concerned, worried for me, but I was suddenly elated. Her question about sources made me realise I had nothing to worry about viz a viz my responsibility for the nation’s security.
— x —
I had finished the tour of HMS Victory and was leaning on the railings on the edge of the harbour wall idly looking across the water to Gosport on the other side. On that side of the channel were anchored two huge, ungainly, ugly ships. Rust brown and caked in dried mud they had gantries rising from their decks and what looked like conveyor belts with huge buckets on them.
‘Biggest two dredgers in the country’ said a young voice next to me. A lad of about 9 -10 had joined me on the railing.
‘They’re going to dredge the channel up to the sub base, there’s a sand bar over there that gets in the way at low water.’
I smiled at him, still thinking about Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar.
‘It’s for the new class of hunter submarines …….. they’ve got a deeper draft.’
He looked up at me, seemingly expecting some sort of response. I did what I do well when I’m in a social situation and can’t work out what’s going on – I grinned somewhat inanely.
Determined to impress he continued, ‘My dad told me, he works in the sub base …. Look,’ he pointed, ‘over there ……. You can see the booms on the water …. Keep the commies ou ….’
‘Jason! Jason!’ a sharp voice shouted from further down the quay, ‘Come here at once,’ then a few seconds later as the lad complied and drew closer to his mother came a fierce whisper, ‘What have I told you about talking to strange men!’
— x —
After some redrafting by Svet I set to and typed out the report on a form headed Совершенно секретно/особой важности. She put it in an envelope with a pre-paid box number on it and we drove off to find a post box.
‘Where can I get a good overview of the Solent?’ she asked as we walked back to the van.
‘Calshot spit … it’s brilliant, right on the edge of the deep water channel and a good view to the east and west.’
‘Let’s go there then, and as you drive you can tell me what your analysis is of the tides.’