Welcome to Chapter Twenty in the serialisation of Neil Mason’s acclaimed and politically relevant debut novel There There My Dear. The former Prime Minister seeks to take control, as a reformed criminal is reluctantly pushed further down a path which offers no return.
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
‘Good morning, son.’
‘Dad. Good. You’re up.’ Dylan paused. ‘You knew it was me?’
‘Dylan, it is – what? – nearly three o’clock in the morning and only a handful of people know this number. Of course I knew it was you.’
‘Yes, well of course…’
‘And I know why you called.’
The landline had rung a couple of times while Harold was trying to sleep upstairs. In the lean hours and in the realm of forgettable dreams he could not recall just how many times he had heard the answer phone cut in, but it had done so for quite some time. Even in those typical moments of disbelief, on waking finally he had realised that it had to be the Prime Minister, his own son, in the grips of panic-induced insomnia.
Harold settled into his battered leather sofa, wireless telephone in one hand, and encouraged his son to speak. For an instant he tried to calculate whether the roar of the North Sea or the tremor of his son’s voice was more disturbing. Momentarily distracted, he wondered if he had left a window open, such was the level of noise calling from the nearby beach. The pounding of the waves was a constant and familiar beat throughout the house but that night it troubled him.
Harold Connor saved his son the embarrassment of making up an excuse. ‘You are calling because of Africa, Connor. Now, tell me what’s on your mind.’
‘Daddy, I don’t know where to start.’
That the Prime Minister had called him ‘Daddy’ was enough to convince Harold that his son had reached a very uncomfortable point very early on in his premiership, that he was out of his depth. At that moment a heavy wave rolled on to the beach to confirm the situation.
‘Are you outside, Dad?’
‘No, son. The wind is strong and from the East. The sea is just reminding us who’s boss.’ ‘Dad’ now. The sign of weakness forgotten.
Dylan confirmed that the telephone line was secure but they both still demonstrated caution as they spoke. Loose tongues.
‘Balance is what you want. That’s what you need to think about.’ Harold pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.
‘But what is the right balance?’ asked Dylan.
Harold empathised. When he had been in power he had found himself in situations where he had to be seen to show compassion and sympathy as well as stoicism and resolve. Oddly it seemed easier to think when the pressure was on somebody else.
‘You know what you cannot say. That’s clear. So, by elimination you will know what you can say.’ This felt easy for Harold to say, although he knew that his son would not be able to see things so clearly. ‘And you need to turn this into a ‘non- event’ quickly. You don’t want the press lingering on whatever happens out there. You need to act quickly.’
‘Can we meet? Tomorrow? Today, I mean. We need to meet.’
‘Dylan, that really is not a good idea. You cannot really leave London at a time like this and, above all, you cannot be seen to go running off to ‘Daddy’ whenever something difficult happens.’
‘Dylan, no.’ Harold’s voice remained calm but his son was under no illusion. ‘No’ meant ‘no’. ‘Put simply, you are panicking. It’s not a good sign, son.’
‘Dad, I need to do something and I need to do it very quickly. And I need your help.’ While Dylan ranted on, Harold reached across the low table and grabbed his packet of cigarettes. Still holding the telephone receiver to his ear but not really listening, he lit a cigarette and took a deep draw.
‘Dad, are you smoking? I never thought – why? Why?’
‘Son, I’m in my twilight years and I enjoy a smoke. Anyway it’s not important now.’ Harold was becoming impatient and saw no reason to justify himself to anyone. ‘And you need to get a grip. If you think about it logically, there’s no real risk here, is there?’
‘No real risk?’ Dylan’s voice betrayed his desperation. ‘What if the papers…’
‘What if the papers do what?’ Harold’s voice was pinched by the narcotic grip of the cigarette smoke in his throat. ‘Now, listen to me and don’t interrupt.’
Harold went on to explain things to his son in a matter-of- fact fashion.
He started by pointing out the obvious. The story had broken only a short time ago and the press was focused solely on the fact that British workers were involved in a hostage situation in North Africa. Clearly the papers had commented on the fact that the incident had taken place in an oil refinery in the middle of the desert. The significant issue was that local military had taken aggressive action to resolve the situation without consulting the British Prime Minister.
Although Dylan knew all of these facts, he said nothing and waited patiently for his father’s next comments. There was a pause and he assumed that ‘Daddy’ was lighting another cigarette. Again, he said nothing.
Harold sucked hard on his freshly lit smoke and threw the lighter onto the table. He slumped back into the sofa before carrying on.
Gazing out in front of him, not really focusing on anything and taking for granted the rhythmic roar from the sea, Harold enlightened his son. Experience was everything. ‘Dylan, you need to look at what has not been mentioned by the press. And you need to understand why it has not been covered and think about what it means.’
Once more, in simplistic terms Harold pointed out that none of the press coverage had mentioned the ownership of the oil refinery, how long it had been operating, how many other oil-related businesses were sited nearby or whether any exploration was going on. Nowhere in the newspapers or online had there been any mention of where the oil went once it left the refinery, who owned it or who benefited from it. All of the interviews with survivors of the attack were focused on the human emotions of fear, surprise, panic and so forth. None of the reporters had looked into the back stories that normally accompany such events. Had they taken the time to question the saved men and women, had they dedicated some time to speaking with representatives from the business itself, the press could have asked questions that would expose enough to encourage even greater media attention.
By asking one of the British survivors some simple and straightforward questions, the reporters could have opened up a proverbial can of worms. All they had to do was ask the identity of their employer, how long they had been working there and how much money they were earning. Honest answers to these questions would make a good reporter delve deeper.
‘But, Dylan, nobody has asked these questions. And that means there’s no real risk here.’
‘I understand, Dad. I think.’
Harold waited for the next question. He knew what it would be and he knew he had to tell his son the truth.
‘But I don’t understand one thing’ continued Dylan. ‘Why? Why has the press been so, I don’t know, un-press-like about this? I mean, when BP had their incident in the Gulf of Mexico the media left no stone unturned. I can’t see why…’
Harold understood completely what was going through his son’s mind. It was just a matter of time before the Prime Minister came to the only possible conclusion. The right conclusion.
‘Dad, I can hardly believe that I am even thinking this but there cannot be any other reason.’ Dylan could hardly bring himself to say the words. ‘I mean, there are two potential reasons and both of them seem impossible to me.’
‘Tell me what you are thinking and I’ll let you know if you are right.
‘I can hardly say this, but either the press has been warned off or, and this simply cannot be true, or the media barons know that they mustn’t dig too deeply.’ Dylan fell silent, not even his breathing could be heard down the other end of the line. Exhaling a cloud of blue cigarette smoke, Harold Connor let his son know that he was right.
‘It’s a blend of the two conclusions, Dylan. A blend of the two. The refinery owners would have briefed their staff to keep quiet about certain things, the government there would be keeping control of the local press. And the global media companies? Well, let’s just say that they may be run by board members with connections. I think that’s all I can say over the phone.’
Dylan Connor was stunned. He could not come to terms with the little bit of reality that he had just discovered. He understood that there had to be others who knew the real truth about Africa. He never expected to witness a global cover-up of such proportions that could have gone so badly wrong.
‘Son, this is really hard, I know. But you are the man in the hot seat. You got yourself there so you have to be prepared for this type of thing.’
‘So, Dad, I really don’t have to do anything?’
‘Not really. Vested interests are powerful allies. Too many people have too much to lose if the media coverage of this situation goes too far. I tell you now, all of this will be forgotten in a week. What you have to do now is throw out some non- committal sound-bites and get on with something else. Make this a non-event. It will all work out just fine.’
Dylan was still dazed and unsure. He asked his father whether he should speak to the man with unnatural presence. Harold explained that, had that man thought it necessary, he would have taken action already. And maybe already had.
The two men said their goodbyes and ended the call. Harold reflected on his time as Prime Minister, remembering that, in real terms he was not in control.
Dylan stood in his office and realised the truth about being Prime Minister. For a while he wondered about the extent of the intrigue. The pit of his stomach fizzed and his breath caught hot in his throat.
This yellow light from the morning’s early sun was gently warming the delicate new leaves on the trees outside his window. Day break’s chill had already been chased away, the night already a memory and the gentle breeze brought a sense of promise. The promise of what?
The memory of the night persisted. Such was the magnitude of his helplessness, brought on by the previous evening’s realisation, that he felt that he had not slept at all. The hours had not elapsed but collapsed for him. The pleasantness of the morning evaded him and he could not shake off his feelings of hopelessness.
Lying in bed, eyes open, breathing shallow, he forced himself to get up and face the day. As soon as his feet touched the floor he let out a deep groan and felt a slight but unwelcome burn in his thighs as he pushed himself upright. Padding ungainly across the bedroom floor he dreaded the thought of looking at himself in the shaving mirror. Then he would have to see the face of a man who had no control over his own life.
While washing his face he avoided looking in the mirror, but even then he was conscious of his own reflection. As if that image might have taken on its own persona and that it would dare him to meet its stare. Ridiculous though that idea was, he did not take the risk and so splashed his face with cold water and kept his gaze low. He knew that soon he would have to assume his character, face his audience and use all of his powers to manipulate the situation to suit his own needs. Except they were not his own needs.
Benson Powell was readying himself to begin his task to take to the stage and to affect his master’s plan. He was wondering whether he could be convincing. Given his state of mind, could he persuade his mark to do his bidding? Doubt crowded his fragile eggshell mind and he wished that he had a beautiful advantage, an advantage similar to the one that Harold Connor enjoyed. He wished that he had something on the student.
Powell wanted something, a secret or a power that would make this unique individual go along with his – not his, Harold Connor’s – plan. Something to make the task achievable and, above that, easy. He was fully aware of all the information he had. Theoretically he had all the dirt he needed to cajole them. But there was something missing.
He could never pinpoint the moment but, over the years, he had lost one particular need. These days he viewed the need as a personality disorder. In his heart he was happy that his personality had evolved in this way, but in his head he knew that things would be a lot easier if he still had that one particular need.
The one thing he lacked, the one emotion that had left him but could make his life so much easier, was the need for control. For control over others. Things had been very different during his adolescence but now he saw no advantage, normally, in exerting power or control over other people. His new philosophy was that, if other people did not agree with him, they had not understood him in the first place. Their loss.
Control. Something he used to crave, but no more.
He used to feel that everything was his for the taking, but now he believed that nothing was really within his grasp. Cut adrift. That was his greatest and most consuming sensation.
Powell accepted that Harold Connor had his expectations and that, if he did not live up to them, Connor could take everything away from him. This was making him behave differently, act out of fear rather than desire.
He made it to the kettle, checked it for water by shaking it from side to side and then switched it on. The foul smell of last night’s vomit compounded his feelings of desperation and reminded him of his responsibilities.
Connor had recommended that Powell take on the persona of an undergraduate. Originally, and due to Powell’s physique, Connor had suggested that Powell pretended to be a sports psychology student. Then Connor thought that Powell should join the target student’s course in order to get closer to them. At that time Powell had pointed out that he had no understanding of politics at all.
The mark would see through him with ease and things could get more than awkward. Then they both had agreed to revert to the original plan.
The kettle clicked off and time sped up.
Twenty-five minutes later and Powell had forced himself to do one hundred press-ups, one hundred sit-ups, one hundred and twenty seconds of the ‘Plank’ and a stretch routine before taking a shower, washing his hair, shaving and filling up on black coffee with plenty of sugar.
The university campus was a short bus journey away and, during the ride, Powell studied a map of the site and tried to visualise the layout. This was his favoured method of committing things to memory. He had never shone academically but he had learnt how to use his mind.
As the bus neared his stop he wondered if he had dressed in a way that would let him fit in. He was a little older than most of the students there and he had convinced himself that universities were full of geeks and nerds. He was sure that he was too cool to blend in and he wondered if he should go back to his room and change.
Change into what?
Stoop and shuffle. Look thoughtful. Don’t speak.
It was only when the bus stopped and all the passengers – every one of them – got off the bus and headed off to various university buildings. He held back and let his fellow travellers alight ahead of him. Although he tried to be inconspicuous in his actions it was clear that he was scrutinizing every one of them.
He saw that some were dressed differently compared with him. Some of them were dressed down deliberately. Grungy. One young man wore eye liner but some were wearing clothes very similar to his own.
At once Powell felt more at ease. He felt normal and this surprised him. The very fact that he did not feel out of place filled him with an unexpected sense of euphoria. An imperceptible and uncontrollable giggle shook his chest and he feigned a cough to cover it up. Unable to suppress a grin of relief he looked down. It was then that he spotted a pair of trainers similar to his own and another giggle made him snort loudly. Looking down he did not notice that only one person registered his involuntary outburst. His fellow traveller with identical trainers looked him in the eye and nodded, as if offering approval.
Powell followed the last passenger off the bus and stood on the pavement a while. Within a few seconds everybody had disappeared into the various buildings and the open spaces between them assumed an air of calm and stillness.
He scanned his surroundings and realised that he did not know where he was. His visualisation technique had failed him and he was lost standing still.
Just a few steps took him to a wood and metal bench and there he set down his bag, opened the zip and reached in to retrieve his campus map. It took him a while to figure out his location and, looking around at the buildings in front of him, he then realised the true scale of the university grounds. The site was massive and spread out in random groups of small and large edifices housing different departments and facilities.
He looked down at the map and back up to the buildings in order to find a reference point. Eyes flicking between the map in his hands and his new surroundings, he started to gain his bearings slowly.
His euphoria started to wane as his trepidation waxed.
Confident now that he knew where he was, Powell headed towards the large glass-fronted building directly ahead of him. As he approached the building he could see his own reflection in its frontage and, as he got closer, he realised that he could not see a defined entrance. The complete frontal aspect of the edifice was an expanse of smoked glass that concealed its occupants and its entrances, exits and doors. He was not worried whether somebody inside had noticed him checking out his own reflection. He was worried that he could not get in.
Just a few strides away from the wall of glass Powell’s problem was solved when one of the see-through panels opened and a young woman left the building, seemingly in a hurry. Powell quickly ran to the self-closing door and slipped inside as the panel closed behind him. Out of pure curiosity he turned to look back at the door to see if it was more clearly defined as a door from the inside. It was not. Entering and exiting this building required familiarity.
The tranquillity within was quite surprising and Powell reasoned that everybody must already be in lessons. There was nobody at the reception desk, no staff or students anywhere to be seen.
Powell checked out his surroundings. He was in a modern building, standing in a large open plan hall with brightly coloured stools and tall tables spread across most of the frontage, a high vaulted ceiling and several broad and tall doors leading off the hall.
According to his campus plan this was the main administrative building for the whole campus. This is where Harold Connor told him to meet Professor Alan Baines.
Powell positioned himself on one of the tall stools and placed his rucksack on the table. From there he could see all of the doors leading off the vast hallway and he had made a mental note of where the door was. He checked his watch, a jewel encrusted Tag Heuer with a silver bracelet, and was comforted by the fact that he was early.
The watch had been bought for him by Harold Connor as a reminder of their first meeting. Connor had chosen the engraved message on the back of the watch. ‘The start of a new time. HC.’
Powell had never realised the significance of those words being etched on a time piece. To him it was just a gift – an expensive gift from a wealthy man – and it looked impressive on his wrist.
It was just after nine o’ clock and Powell was as relaxed as he could be, given the circumstances. As he scanned the room around him, waiting for Professor Baines to appear, he recalled the photograph of Baines that Connor had included in the electronic dossier. His mental image was of a slim white man with a black man’s lips.
A few minutes passed without a single person coming in to view and then, off to Powell’s left, one of the tall doors opened slowly. Powell recognised the man’s face from the photograph but was not sure that it was the right person. The scale of the door and the enormity of the vestibule conspired to make Professor Baines appear particularly short. This small man proceeded to walk towards Powell. As he neared Powell could see that he was not particularly short and estimated that he was, all the same, the shorter amongst them.
‘It’s Benson, isn’t it? Benson Powell.’ Baines held out his hand as he reached Powell’s table. Powell remained seated as he shook the professor’s hand.
‘Yes, Mr Baines. Professor Baines.’
‘You found us OK, then? How is your accommodation?’
For a few moments Powell informed Baines of his journey and the nature of his rooms. He then confessed to being confused by the doors to the building and Baines conceded that it was a bit baffling at first.
‘Our mutual friend has supplied me with some very interesting and specific instructions. So, we’d better go over to my office so we can speak in private.’ Baines gestured towards one of the doors.
‘You mean Harold Connor, don’t you? Our, sort of, friend?’
Professor Baines turned to face Powell square on and, with a hardened expression, admonished the younger man.
‘Mr Powell! Benson. Under no circumstances are you to mention our mutual friend’s name in public again. Do you understand?’
Baines was stern to the point of domineering.
‘But I was just checking, you know?’ Powell’s voice tightened and his words seemed weak in contrast with Baines’.
‘Do you understand me? Never again.’ Baines turned and headed towards his office without waiting for Powell’s response. After a brisk and quite lengthy walk through tall doors and wide corridors the two men reached Professor Baines’ office. Baines unlocked the door and entered. Powell followed, noting the engraved plaque on the door showing the room number, 507, and the professor’s name.
The professor walked around his desk and sat down in his executive chair, gestured to Baines to take the seat opposite him and then leant forward to rest his elbows on the desk. The thin and low clouds had made the light flat and it pitched the professor into silhouette against the huge windows behind him. Powell took his seat and waited for the professor to start speaking.
A genuine warm smile curled the professor’s lips and gave some definition to his usually gaunt cheeks. The professor’s eyes were telling Powell that the heat had gone from the moment, expressing that they were both on the same side. Baines had been around young people for years and knew clearly that he had established full control over his visitor. Although Powell retained enough self-confidence to sustain eye contact, his facial expression and slightly hunched shoulders showed the professor that Powell had assumed the passive role in this budding relationship.
‘How many times did you read the dossier?’
‘I don’t know. Lost count. Read it on the train, read it when I got to my crib. Read it again this morning. Loads of times. Loads.’
Baines rested his chin on his fingertips. It looked as if he was praying. And then he smiled again. Powell had not denied the existence of the dossier or questioned whether it was the same one. Baines knew, as he had demonstrated his authority so soon after their meeting, that Powell was not highly educated and that he was so new to the university environment. He could manipulate any situation with Powell to his own advantage.
‘There’s a problem, a potential problem, with the instructions. You may have noticed that there is no contingency plan.’
Powell offered no comment and Baines understood that he would have to be explicit in his communication with this young man sitting opposite.
‘There’s no ‘Plan B’ or alternative, is there? Our mutual friend has assumed that everyone will believe that you are on a sports scholarship. What if somebody doesn’t believe you?’
‘Why wouldn’t they believe me?’ A mix of a smile and a frown revealed a touch of self-doubt on Powell’s face. ‘Why would anyone think anything else?’
Baines pitched in and stood up as he started to speak in a voice that was too loud for the circumstances.
‘I know that you have not met our target student and I also know that you have never met anybody quite like them.’
Powell did not know what to think or say.
Baines walked around his desk and stood to Powell’s right. He was testing the young man to see if he would look at him or keep his eyes facing forward. Powell continued to look ahead.
‘What if she sees right through you? Senses that you are not – how should I put this? – typical student material. What would you say to convince her? More importantly, what would you say to our mutual friend if she doesn’t go along with your suggestion?’
‘But Mr Connor…’
‘There! I told you not to mention his name.’
‘But we’re alone…’
‘I told you never to mention his name. Do you see how easy it is? To let your guard down under a little pressure?’
Powell let his head drop so his chin was on his chest. ‘I’m sorry. I just thought…’
Baines laughed. A laugh so big it filled the room. Powell looked at him quizzically. Disbelief gave way to anger in the young man’s eyes. Baines took a step closer to the seated man and spoke before Powell could say a word.
‘Don’t be upset,’ he said. ‘I did that deliberately. Just to show you how simple it can be to react. It’s an emotional thing. You have to be in control. If you can’t control yourself then you certainly won’t be able to control somebody else.’
Powell’s eyes were burning into an empty seat ahead of him. He realised that he had been fooled. He understood that he had been tricked into saying something that he should not have. He had learnt a lesson delivered by a master teacher.
‘Benson,’ Baines’ voice was softer, friendlier, ‘that was just a test and I didn’t mean to anger you in any way. Please forgive me, but I had to do it.’
‘Make me look a twat? You had to make me look a twat? I don’t think so.’ Powell’s anger meant that he could not make eye contact with the professor.
Detecting a latent fury that was very nearly stirred, the professor took a few moments to explain a little about his student’s unparalleled ability to get under a person’s skin. Any person. And at any time. He pointed out graphically that the young woman could evoke whichever emotion she chose from anybody she spoke to. While delivering his observations he saw that Powell did not believe him. He supposed that it would be difficult for anyone to believe it. He listened to his own words as he spoke and it sounded as if he were describing an omnipotence. An enigma.
Baines finished speaking and returned to his chair. As he sat down he turned the seat so it was not facing Powell head on. Less aggressive. He resisted the temptation to ask the young man whether he understood. Another question may seem like another attack.
‘She sounds wicked.’ Powell’s choice of words wrong- footed Baines for an instant. ‘She’s like a lie detector and a prick tease at the same time.’
Professor Baines rejected the idea of informing the young man of his student’s well-earned reputation and waited for the young man to continue speaking.
‘When am I likely to meet her? Will it be today?
‘Well, today is Monday so there’s every probability that she will be at the Student Union tonight. You might want to try there at around seven o’clock. Happy hour. For now, I want us to go through the dossier one more time. Together. We have a schedule to work to, so let’s crack on.’
To Be Continued…
This chapter is a strong example of one of the most predominant themes throughout my novel… control and manipulation. The story also raises the question, ‘In today’s politically driven and media manipulated society, are any of us really in complete control of our own lives?’
Do post your thoughts on my Facebook Page . I’d love for you to be a part of the conversation!
Chapter Twenty-One to be published next week.
Very best wishes,
Sign Up To Neil’s Newsletter for the latest news and book talk. Announcements, reviews, signings, talks & author events, competitions & giveaways…and much more! JOIN THE CONVERSATION TODAY!