Welcome to Chapter Twenty-Two in the gripping and original serialisation of Neil Mason’s debut novel There There My Dear. Tensions are running high in the Cabinet office, as Prime Minister Dylan Connor recounts the terrorist attack on the African oil refinery where British workers have been taken hostage. But are things really what they seem?
If you’ve missed out on the earlier chapters, don’t worry. To catch up on events so far, just follow this link to catch up!
There There My Dear
‘Never let them see you’re scared.’
It was his only conscious thought. Surely it would be impossible to name the originator of this statement.
The first time he had heard it was at school. His father, before he was Prime Minister, had come to watch him play his first ever competitive rugby match. He had been scared. He had listened to his father’s advice and heard its true meaning. It had changed nothing and he had played appallingly. But he never forgot the advice.
‘Never let them see you’re scared.’
So important right now.
The Cabinet Office. Filled to bursting. Ministers all around him expecting a definitive plan to address the situation in Africa. Only his Deputy could imagine the severity of the situation – the others were probably fearful enough with the hostage situation. How would they feel if they knew the real truth?
Expectant. The level of noise was high despite everybody’s conscious effort to refrain from raising their voices. His father had always referred to it as ‘Whitehall Noise’, a play on white noise. Meaningless but dangerous all the same.
Dylan Connor made every effort to control his breathing as he eyed the collection of ministers in that historic room. He struggled to decide who looked the most haggard. The Foreign Secretary? He was gaunt and pale at the best of times.
The Trade Secretary. A coronary waiting to happen. Himself? The light tint of his subtle foundation should have given him an air of vitality.
‘Gentlemen. Gentlemen!’ He had to raise his voice to attract everybody’s attention. There was no need to call out ‘Ladies’ because he had not appointed a single woman to his Cabinet. At times he thought he should change that situation, to appease the press at least, but such thoughts were far from his mind that day.
‘Gentlemen, please!’ A shout by any other name. ‘We have a lot to do this morning. And one particular item on the agenda is likely to take up quite a bit of time. Now, please. Can we all settle down?’ This was not a real question. ‘I’d like to get on.’
Protocol had always dictated that ministers could only sit down once the Prime Minister had taken his seat. Dylan Connor sat down and all of the others followed.
‘Good morning, gentlemen. Let us begin.’
Dylan Connor began by reading out the agenda for the meeting. Without looking up or acknowledging any murmurs or comments, he listed the items and highlighted that there were no apologies – everybody had turned up. He had to be in full control of his voice as he called out the topics so not to reveal the item that was worrying him most. Every point on the agenda was a worry to him, but there was every reason to conceal which one troubled him over all of the others.
In machine-gun style he read out loud:
Update from the NDA
Visit from the US Secretary of State Operation Elmtree
Algeria Hostage Developments Interim reports from Ofsted and CQC
Gross Government Income
Any Other Business
‘Now, in order to make things absolutely clear, I will go through each of these points and invite questions or comments if I think it worthwhile. Understood? If I don’t invite a comment, don’t make one.’ He scanned the room, stared down anybody who made eye contact with him and then he looked to his right. Joseph Bartrum, the Deputy Prime Minister, was staring back at him. Connor spent an instant considering a staring match but thought better of it. But he could see that Bartrum was posturing and he sensed that there could be trouble ahead.
Connor launched into the agenda and made statements to the Cabinet that journalists would have loved to hear. Statements that would confirm suspicions and quash conspiracy theories in seconds.
Despite his overall anxiety he could not help making a little joke about quantitative easing. He pointed out that the fully independent Bank of England had independently decided to pump more money into the banking system as an independent act designed to invigorate the economy. He was very pleased with this independent act and thanked the Chancellor for ensuring that the Bank of England maintained its independent status while considering fiscal stimulation.
The little joke did not receive much laughter at all. Connor moved on to the latest update from the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency and confirmed the new estimate for security costs at Sellafield. Over the next ten years it was likely to cost over nine hundred and eighty million pounds to store and protect tons of plutonium at that site. Connor looked at the Energy Secretary and noted the look of resignation on his face.
The truth was that Britain had been set to supply Japan with fuels for its nuclear power stations. Billions of pounds had been invested in the production of plutonium from used uranium created by domestic nuclear plants. The deal with Japan had fallen through as a result of the earthquakes there but still Britain was producing plutonium. No other country wanted it as a fuel, although some countries probably wanted it for more aggressive uses. So Britain was left with a product that had cost a fortune to make, would cost even more to store and secure, and that nobody wanted. Production continues. Connor concluded on this point that there was an ongoing requirement for tight security and that the cost would have to be met.
Maintaining his pace and inviting no comments or questions from his Cabinet ministers, Connor moved on to the next agenda points, stating that he would consult individual ministers on their situation regarding Operation Elmtree. This was a police enquiry investigating the sale of confidential information to the press by public sector employees.
Connor had used the investigation to remove individuals from positions of power over the recent months with the benefit of having the investigation as his excuse. The never- ending circle of corruption had meant that the civil servants were the victims of the press to whom they had leaked the information in the first place. Subsequently the press were under scrutiny for having used the information from the civil servants. All of the Cabinet ministers were aware of the arrests, resignations and allegations that had been reported and, Connor knew, all of them had secrets they wished to keep. Although he did not invite any comments, Connor made a point of looking at each minister in turn, gauging their reactions and looking for opportunities to force a reshuffle.
The state visit from the USA was despatched without comment and then Connor moved on to the crisis in Algeria. Despite his clear instructions at the beginning of the meeting, the ministers started to murmur to one another in hushed tones. Connor was looking down at the agenda while the room started to fill with noise. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that Joseph Bartrum was not chatting to anybody or making vacuous comments to the others. In fact, he was totally still, tense and gripping his pen in his left hand so firmly that his knuckles drained of blood and his forearm started to shake.
In a heartbeat, the memories of their meeting with the man with unnatural presence filled his conscience and he wondered if he had started to shake as well.
‘Gentlemen, please. I need you all to be quiet and to listen to me before I answer any questions about the next item on the agenda. So please, show some restraint and listen to me before saying anything – anything at all. I will not tolerate interruptions. Have I made myself clear?’
The room fell silent. Sideways glances and raised eyebrows, exaggerated in some cases, allowed some expression from the ministers. To a man they obeyed the Prime Minister’s instructions, not daring to go against his word.
‘I am not blind. And I am not stupid. What happened in Algeria yesterday is all over the news: the television, the radio, social media and the papers. Most of it is uninformed and, in accordance with my instructions to the refinery owners and the Algerian press, the truth is still contained. And so it shall remain.’
His pause was deliberate. He wanted everybody to register that the lack of detail in the press was down to his decision and his authority.
Connor recounted to his audience the precise timings of all of the events that had taken place at the oil refinery, providing a level of detail that nobody had heard before. This was not to be relayed to anybody outside the Cabinet Office itself. He explained that a black pick-up truck and a white Land Rover arrived at the compound’s gates at dusk two days ago. On stopping at the security barrier the driver lowered his window and shot the armed security guard at close range. The passenger got out of the truck and raised the barrier to allow the two vehicles into the compound and then closed the outer gates. The ministers listened patiently.
Continuing in a dominant monotone, Connor explained that the gang then entered the site canteen where the workers were rounded up and some were beaten. Two of the gang remained in the canteen and two more made their way to the refinery control centre deeper into the compound.
On reaching the control centre one of the gang shot and killed another guard and forced the site staff there to walk back to the canteen. There the staff were subject to beatings and one member of staff was forced to strip.
Connor took a moment to drink some water. He did not let his eyes leave the document in his hand. He continued and confirmed that six terrorists had entered the compound and took thirty-three men and women as hostages. By that point the gang had murdered two security guards, one a former solder from the Algerian Army, the other a former French Gunnery Sergeant.
The amassed ministers were not so interested in this detail and most of that information had already been available to anybody who watched the news on the television. What they wanted to know was why the Algerian government had not contacted the Prime Minister’s office to alert him to this incident.
Connor knew this and went on. He saw some of the ministers lean forward in their seats in anticipation.
‘Of the thirty-three hostages, nine were British. At six o’clock yesterday morning the Algerian Army stormed the compound in order to bring the situation under control. The mission, considering the circumstances, was a success. All six of the terrorists were killed and the hostages’ injuries were not serious.’
Connor looked up for an instant. He did not want this gesture to be seen as an invitation for anybody else to speak and so he carried on with the report. ‘At no point, not until the situation had been neutralised, did the Algerian authorities contact me to let me know what was going on. This was down to incompetence but I will be informing the media that it was down to expedience. My statement will highlight that due to the complexity of the situation and the heightened risk to refinery employees there was no time for the Algerian Prime Minister to bring me up to speed on the developments in real time. He decided to complete the mission before informing me.’
Bartrum looked around the room and could see that every man there was thinking the same thing: the Algerian Prime Minister’s actions showed that he had no time for Connor and that he had little respect for Great Britain. Bartrum, thinking back to his briefing about Africa, suspected that there was more to the story. He knew he had to speak with the Prime Minister in private.
‘I need you all to know that I will be dealing with the diplomatic situation with Algeria. In fact, I have had lengthy conversations with senior officials there and they know exactly how I feel.
‘As a result of all this I have to tell you that as a government, and irrespective of the colour ties we wear, we have to keep a lid on this. I have spoken with some professional acquaintances in the media and I can assure you all that this story will go away quickly.’
The Trade Secretary could not resist the temptation and asked the question on everybody’s lips. ‘What if it doesn’t go away? What if somebody starts asking difficult questions?’
‘Difficult fucking questions?’ The Prime Minister all but exploded. His eyes bulged and he stood up before shouting at his colleague, ‘Fucking hell, I told you – no questions!’ The Chancellor had to step in before the Conservative Prime Minister embarked on a more personal attack on the Liberal Trade Secretary.
‘The Prime Minister is in a heightened state of awareness today and I am sure that he can put our minds to rest.’ He offered Connor some more water and implored him to quash the whole discussion.
‘Look,’ Connor’s voice was lower but touched by vibrato, ‘if you pay any attention to the press you will already see that the situation is under control. There’s been no mention of who owns the refinery, no talk about the actual terrorist group behind the attack and certainly no coverage of what they were demanding.’
Bartrum’s eyes narrowed. Was Connor about to reveal the truth about Africa? Had he assumed that the terrorists knew that the profits from the refinery were flooding out of Algeria and that there was enough profit to ease most of the country’s economic woes?
‘So I’ll tell you, as your Prime Minister, that the terrorist group was just a bunch of chancers who didn’t know what they were doing. Anybody can get a gun over there and they thought they could rob some rich Westerners. And now? Now they are all dead. All dead!’ He thumped the table.
The Chancellor stepped in again and suggested that they all take a break. Connor stamped his authority on the situation and ended the meeting. He ordered everybody to leave, recommending that nobody speak to the media and advising that he would know if they did. All of the ministers, except the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister, left the room in uncommon silence.
‘Dylan, I would like to speak with you alone.’ Bartrum’s voice was low and calm.
‘I don’t believe that there’s anything the Prime Minister would wish to say that can’t be said in my presence.’ The Chancellor’s tone was almost jovial.
‘Just go, Henry. Joseph and I need a moment.’
‘But…’ The Chancellor could see from Connor’s attitude that now was not the time to challenge the Prime Minister. Bartrum waited until the Cabinet Room door was fully closed before turning to face Dylan Connor. It was not respect but empathy that made him wait a few moments before speaking. ‘I think you did what you had to do. I think you did well.’
‘Don’t patronise me, Joseph. Just get to the point. Although I know what you want to say.’ With the room nearly empty, Connor’s words echoed briefly.
‘Was it anything to do with…with…?’
‘Frankly, we don’t have any intelligence on the group that organised the attack. But I am pretty sure that, somewhere along the line, this was part of a much bigger plan.’ Connor second-guessed Bartrum’s next question.
‘Yes, I do think that things could unravel across Africa.’
It seemed to Bartrum that Connor was recounting a prepared speech to him. Connor continued with a distant look in his eyes.
‘There has been no form of communication from any group claiming responsibility for the attack. No ransom demands, no political statements, absolutely nothing. And completely under the radar there have been no forms of contact from bereaved family members of the deceased terrorists. Nothing.’
Bartrum contemplated this for a few seconds, still playing with his pen and looking at nothing in particular.
Connor looked at him. ‘I have a good idea what you are thinking, Joseph. And I really don’t care about the situation – our situation – but I really cannot bear to think about the consequences if this is the first part of a bigger plan.’
Bartrum started to speak but had to clear his throat. His unoccupied eyes seemed at odds with his words when, at last, they came.
‘If this is the first of a series of coordinated attacks, then that could lead to…to disaster. Global disaster. But surely it isn’t possible, is it? It would need an enormous amount of coordination across dozens of different African countries. Surely that’s impossible.’
Since their meeting with the man with unnatural presence both men had lost sleep over the whole matter of Africa. The enormity of the whole situation was unconscionable.
During that encounter the anonymous man from the Secret Service had explained to the new Prime Minister and his Deputy that, since the end of the Second World War, Africa had been subject to a form of annexing by several Western countries. Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway and the United States of America had drawn up a master plan to exploit the vast natural resources of the African continent.
For nearly seventy years the agreement had been kept secret and the attack on the refinery could be the start of the end of the agreement.
In 1947 those five nations agreed to invest in Africa by means of exploration for oil, gas, gold, diamonds, uranium and aluminium, as well as any other significant ore or mineral discoveries that may crop up by accident. Due to the vastness of the continent and the unpredictability of such exploration, the countries decided that all costs and all profits resulting from their joint endeavours would be shared equally.
In the aftermath of the war there was little appetite for investment so hardly any prospecting took place. However, the five countries involved decided jointly that reinvestment into Africa was not a priority. In fact it was to be avoided. The principle was simple: if reinvestment into African countries were to go ahead then Africa itself would become a burden. With efficient infrastructure, modern facilities, clean water and proper nutrition the mortality rate across the continent would change significantly and quickly. It was agreed that the culture would not change quickly enough and the birth rate would not drop. The population would double and double again in a decade.
In the years since the agreement had been drawn up the number of nations signed up to the deal had grown too. As a result of blackmail, fraud, fornication, drugs and alcohol, the secret had been leaked, stolen, extorted or teased out of some frivolous ambassadors in the dead of night. The members list had risen from five to twenty.
When Connor and Bartrum had learned of this they had become virtually catatonic. That stupor had gripped them harder when they learnt more.
Over the last forty years, the African plan had been under threat, significant and sustained threat, but not from typical sources. The threat had come from benevolence. For decades, charities across the world had been raising money to alleviate harsh conditions across the African continent. Every year huge amounts of money had been poured into a host of different projects ranging from digging wells, inoculations and building orphanages to the provision of school books, malaria tents and communication systems.
The nations in the agreement had made every effort to ensure that these projects made little or no impact on the overall demographics of the nation. Much of this was done by red tape and complicated procedures to attract cost to all the projects. Some of this was done by instigating civil unrest in countries that still operated feudal systems. The man from the Secret Service had seemed arrogant when he stated that it had been relatively easy to achieve. He also told them that, under those circumstances, there was no such thing as collateral damage. In fact, some individuals had benefited considerably as a result of pay-offs and inducements.
These costs had been considered as insignificant in contrast to the potential rewards to be had. The bottom line was that Africa could never be allowed to develop. Not for itself. The continent had to remain poor and with horrendous mortality levels. It was the only way forward. Too many living inhabitants in the continent would result in worldwide food shortages and, worse, reduced profits for the investors.
‘It seems impossible, Joseph. But we just don’t know enough. Hopefully it was just a bunch of chancers. If it turns out to be – I don’t know – a group of well-informed people who want to take back control…’
Bartrum cut in. ‘But why did the Algerian government step in? Surely they stand to gain more from the refinery, from having their own industry and all?’
‘No, Joseph. You don’t get it. The leaders of some of these countries are better off with the status quo. It’s easier for them that way.’
Bartrum considered Connor’s words and thought about challenging him on that point. Was it really conceivable that the leaders of some countries were in on the deal? That they would not want to protect their people? That they kept the status quo for lucre? He changed his mind as he did not want to think about these things any more than he had to. He also felt quite pleased that he was not Prime Minister. All this was somebody else’s problem, and that somebody was obvious to him.
Joseph Bartrum left the room without another word. He felt an unusual and heady mix of release and security because he would not be responsible for maintaining the disgusting façade. His role would disappear easily in the scale and complexity of the myth.
Alone in the Cabinet Office, Connor sat contemplating the potential outcomes of the whole fiasco. The thoughts ran uncontrolled through his conscience.
Worst case scenario? The media learns the truth. All of it. The media selects the most sensational bits to cause as much outrage as possible. The public learns that the huge amount of money donated to charitable causes has been misappropriated and all of this because a handful of countries wants money.
The world would know that the world’s wealthiest nations had conspired to keep Africa subjugated in order to extract more wealth for themselves, for industry.
Connor for a moment thought about the photograph on the wall in his father’s den. He pictured the image in his mind. The smiling faces of his father, the former Prime Minister, and his mother. His dead mother. Dylan Connor recalled that the photograph was taken in Africa and that was the day his mother died.
To Be Continued…
It has been suggested that the fictional terror attack on the African oil refinery in this story may uncomfortably resemble a real incident that took place in Africa some years ago and that, as in my narrative, the media reporting of the real-life incident was quashed by the government at the time.
Control of the media and suppression of the truth? It would be easy to think that all of this was in some way connected to attempts to ban the publication of my book. Of course, I couldn’t possible comment!
I’d love to know what you think, so please leave your thoughts on my Facebook Page . Be a part of the conversation!
Chapter Twenty-Three to be published next week.
Very best wishes,
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