Episode 15 (of 18)
Then I got really, really, lucky, although at the time it seemed like a rather mixed blessing.
After Svet had left me to travel to London I drove out to my favourite place on Calshot Spit and sat down to a determined effort to try and come up with something new in my reports. A good few hours later I had eventually gone to bed in the slough of despond. I didn’t even have Svet to keep my spirits up, although under the circs it was probably better she wasn’t around. I didn’t envy her having to attend the meeting to review the work of all field operatives. It did not bode well.
I woke early, not long after the dawn and set about making the coffee that would, hopefully, help propel me into purposefulness. I then pulled down the blind on the window facing the sea – and gasped!
There, right in front of me was a ship, a grey naval ship, listing slightly to port and ….. stationary. It took me a few seconds to realise – she was aground ….. on The Brambles! The bank was not visible but gently breaking waves around the ship indicated that it was there alright, just below the surface. I reached for my Russian issue high powered binoculars and brought her into focus – M1116, a minesweeper, stranded on the falling tide.
I dug out my reference book of Royal Navy vessels and whistled – this was the jack-pot! – HMS Wilton, part of the 2nd Mine Counter Measures Squadron based at Portsmouth and an experimental design. The hull was made of GRP plastic (an obvious asset for a minesweeper) and was the first warship in the world to be made thus.
This was my chance. I slung the straps of the lightweight Leica over my head and then pulled out the military camera, huge telephoto lens and tripod from one of the cupboards and staggered out into the cold clear morning air. I had some trouble setting up the equipment. I had only practiced once before in the forest, but finally got it into position and then focussed in on the stranded vessel. It was a 36 exposure film and I had just finished off the close work with a few panoramic shots when I heard the siren, approaching from behind me – coming along the spit. Every silver lining as they say.
I lifted the camera and its lens off the tripod and rushed back inside the van. After a moment’s indecision I pulled the bedding and mattress back and pushed the camera into the locker underneath. Then back out for the tripod, which I only just managed to get in through the door and shut it before two cars pulled up alongside. One was a police car, lights flashing but with the siren mercifully now off, the other, from which emerged two military police officers, was unmarked.
‘You must leave!’ one of the military police officers barked at me, ‘We are sealing the area off.’
I nodded and was just turning to go back into the van when ..
‘You been taking pictures?’
I opened my mouth, but fortunately events had a momentum of their own.
‘Give me that camera!’ he pointed at the Leica hanging from my neck.
I complied and with quick angry movements he opened the back and pulled out the roll of film, making sure it was all exposed.
‘There,’ he said handing back the camera, ‘Now get out of here!’
Well I had every incentive to comply with that instruction. Unfortunately the previously stowed tripod had fallen back against the inside of the door and as I opened it and moved to step up and in, it (the tripod) set off out and downwards. There was a brief struggle during which my initial surprise and panic was overcome by a determination borne entirely out of fear and I managed to power through, although not without crashing full length on the floor of the van and when I say crashing I want you to understand that I am in no way overplaying the sheer cacophony of the accompaniment. I flung out a despairing hand and pulled a whole draining rack of china crockery onto the floor (I know, but Svet had high standards), followed by the metal grill pan and then the kettle.
I lay awhile on top of the bastard tripod frantically trying to think how I was going to explain, the mismatch between what was an industrial size tripod with made in Krasnogorsk (in Russian) stamped on it and the lightweight German Leica. I hadn’t come anywhere near to developing a satisfactory account when I realised that the door had obligingly shut behind me and it was not being opened by a suspicious and soon to be angry military police officer. I disentangled myself and peered out of the window to see two unmistakeable figures standing down at the water’s edge, staring out at the stranded ship, with their backs to me. Of the police car there was no sign, although I waved in what I hoped was a cheery, nonchalant manner at its occupants a couple of minutes later as I dove pass the road block they were setting up at the landward end of the spit.
I drove on, wondering what to do. I had just what my paymasters wanted, close up pics of a top secret Royal Navy warship and I was probably in very deep shit. The more I thought about it the more worried I became. This would get Svet and me off the hook ……. but this was treachery …. I had been apprehended by one of the least friendly arms of the state , and ……. who was going to help me? …….. Svet would be really pleased, and not a little relieved …. but I might already be a fugitive …….. but from whom? ……. probably from everyone!
The fugitive thing managed to break me out of my circular funk and I resolved to drive to a quiet part of the New Forest along the smallest roads I could remember. I breathed a sigh of relief as I emerged from a gravel track into a deserted car park. It was the work of a moment to slip the reserve number plates over the existing ones – not quite the same comprehensive disguise as effected by Edward Fox but you have to work with what you’ve got.
I knew I had to think really carefully. I had to weigh up stuff, balance competing pressures, consider personal and professional matters, judge the consequences of any particular action, calibrate risk and manage anxiety! The more I thought, the more difficult it got so I did the only sensible thing. I carefully extracted the film from the Zenit, stuffed it in a brown envelope and hid it in a small, largely inaccessible recess in a corner of the van. I would decide later. Ten minutes later I was driving steadily away – from the area and, hopefully, my actions.
— x —
I arrived back in the forest later that afternoon and immediately phoned the number I had been given. I gave my code number and left a message to say I needed to speak to Svetlana as a matter of urgency before settling down in front of the telly with a cup of tea.
It was all over The News:
– HMS Tupperware (apparently that was her naval nickname) stranded on The Brambles. There was a fuzzy picture taken at long range with a tug seemingly nosed up against her to prevent the list becoming worse.
– Navy Source hints at foreign interference.
– The Authorities seal the area off and the police seek the driver of a blue and white ice cream van seen earlier at the scene taking pictures to help them with their enquiries.
I tried to comfort myself with the fact that the van wasn’t of the ice cream vending variety and, improbably, no registration plate had been noted – but I have to admit to being anxious, bordering on panicky.
The phone call from Svet did not come. I opened a bottle of vodka and drank my way to bed.
I was awoken in the early hours by the sound of a large vehicle being driven at speed down the gravel track. As it pulled into the clearing and its lights swept across the cluster of buildings I was pulling on trousers (backwards) and ramming my left foot into my right shoes ……..