This story is by Ruth McCracken and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The Young Man glances at his watch to double-check. Yes, twenty slow minutes they’ve kept him waiting in this room, his every breath noted by the Impassive Presence at the door.
He stifles a yawn, then thinks back to an hour ago when he was on his way to The Agency, swinging his briefcase as he sauntered along by the river in the warm spring air, enjoying bird song and buds bursting open on plane trees, anticipating the day’s hectic schedule of meetings, reports and executive decisions. He was wondering what his wife had made him for his packed lunch when a voice whispered in his ear: ‘Good morning sir, your car is ready.’
He recalls jumping, then spinning round to find the Impassive Presence close up behind him, gripping his arm, pushing him towards a dark-windowed limo, the open back door revealing champagne leather upholstery. He protested as he was propelled into the car, but no-one passing noticed. He glimpsed what looked like his phone being passed to the chauffeur.
And now he’s here, in this oak-panelled room. Dust hangs in shafts of light that filter through lead-paned windows. Portraits of weak-chinned men in fine clothes look down on him from each side of the vast marble fireplace. Delicate porcelain figurines of minueting lords and ladies, and lute-playing cherubs adorn polished wooden tables inlaid with ivory.
Sweat soaks his shirt, under his arms, the small of his back. The sun is bright now, the room airless. Beyond the French doors and immaculate symmetry of the Parterre, deer graze on lush grass. The parkland stretches outwards and upwards, broken only by the silhouettes of majestic oaks, until it meets the cloudless blue sky.
In the car it was several minutes before he’d been able to speak.
‘Who are you? Where are you taking me?’
The Impassive Presence shifted slightly beside him, pushed his Ray-Bans up his nose a little, slowly unbuttoned his suit jacket so that the Young Man would see his gun holster.
His hands and legs had trembled for the whole journey.
Heavy walnut cases filled with leather-bound volumes solemnly line one wall with the weight of their learning. Swirls of gold pattern the powder blue thick carpet. Stucco leaves and vines radiate from a rose in the ceiling, where a crystal chandelier dangles above his head like the sword of Damocles.
The Young Man notices his shoes are scuffed. And there is still dirt under his nails from helping the twins sow sunflower seeds on Sunday.
He had sat in silence on the journey here, watching as turbulent traffic, glass-fronted offices, elegant Georgian structures, and narrow alleyways dwindled into suburbia. He watched as closely-packed neat houses with trimmed hedges, and towering blocks of featureless flats faded into fields and sheep, a few honey-coloured villages, dog walkers, even a woman on a horse.
It was as they stopped at a set of elaborate gates hung between two substantial stone pillars, when the chauffeur had punched in a code under the alert surveillance of a security camera; it was as the gates slowly swung open and they had inched forward on to an unmade stony single track path; it was as the Young Man noticed the coat of arms wrought into the iron, that’s when he had tasted vomit in his throat.
The Young Man reflects on what he’s achieved in the few months since the Commander promoted him, entrusting him to overhaul creaking, almost feudal, government procedures and the idle inadequate people who shore them up. ‘Succeed in this and His Majesty will look favourably on you,’ he was told. No-one mentioned what might happen if he didn’t succeed.
The door opens. The Duke floats in, and with him the scent of citrus and musk. An Unctuous Aide with a waxed moustache flits after him. The Duke pauses behind the bowed legged mahogany desk while the Unctuous Aide pulls out a cushioned high-back chair. Then the Duke gently lowers himself, adjusts the sleeves of his linen shirt so that the platinum and sapphire cufflinks show beyond his tailored suit jacket. He rests his elbows on the desk. He presses his fingertips together, and smiles down at where the Young Man sits on a low, hard stool.
‘We should like some tea.’ His voice is mellow.
The Unctuous Aide scuttles off. The Impassive Presence clenches his jaw, and stares over his glasses at the Young Man.
‘We’ve heard great things about you.’ The Duke pauses but the Young Man does not respond. He continues in a level tone. ‘Incumbent for no more than the blink of an eye and already… a new broom, eh, sweeping out the tired unwieldy ways of the past…’
The Unctuous Aide returns with a tray of rosebud china cups and saucers, a silver teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl. The Duke scrutinises as first milk and then amber tea are poured and handed to him.
‘Sugar?’ The Unctuous Aide has an unexpectedly rough deep voice. The Young Man nods. The sound of two lumps of sugar plopping into liquid is explosive. Though not as deafening as the rattle of cup against saucer as the Young Man, having searched for but found nowhere to rest his tea, is forced to hold it in his hand.
The Duke sips and smiles.
‘Such a shame is it not, the fall from grace of the Minister for Bowyers and Loriners? I understand you were advised against making him redundant?’
The Young Man swallows. ‘I’m not at liberty to discuss confidential government business.’
‘I’m informed you remained unpersuaded, confident in the aptness of your decision.’
‘I am unable …’
The Duke rubs his hands together and cracks his knuckles. ‘The Minister was very diligent, was he not? Highly respected. I’ve spoken with him, and he’s extremely upset. His wife is extremely upset.’ He takes another sip. ‘Have you met his wife, my youngest sister?’
The Young Man hears himself gasp. ‘As I said …’
‘Confidential government business, blah blah blah.’ The Duke sighs. ‘I counsel you to reconsider. Will you? He’d be delighted – I’d be delighted – if this sorry affair could be terminated agreeably. Chalked up to a lack of experience and the exuberance of youth.’
The Duke stands and glides across the carpet. He’s well over six feet tall. He looms in front of the Young Man, hands clasped behind his back.
‘Have we reached a satisfactory conclusion?’
The Young Man considers how the Press will run the news, labelling him a hypocrite who’s succumbed at the first hurdle. He takes a deep breath. ‘Decisions in government are taken judiciously and are not subject to the vagaries of external forces.’
The Duke throws back his head, laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. His fillings are gold.
‘Your principled stand is to be admired. Yet… you do realise it is completely fruitless?’
He returns to his seat and delicately sips from his cup, the little finger of his right hand impeccably angled. He opens the top drawer of the desk, brings out a butter thin biscuit which he dips into his tea, nibbling with much satisfaction.
‘The trick is knowing at what point to retract, before all disintegrates.’ He smiles, takes a handkerchief from his top pocket and dabs at the corners of his mouth. He turns to the Unctuous Aide. ‘How many employees of The Agency are there?’
‘One thousand and twenty-three, Your Grace.’
‘And how many on our books?’
‘Including this morning’s recruits, seven hundred and forty-nine.’
The Duke gazes at the Young Man. ‘Pity we couldn’t make it seven hundred and fifty.’ He looks up at the ceiling, furrows his brow, raises his hands heavenward as if in prayer. ‘Ah well!’ He rises, adjusts his tie and beckons at the Unctuous Aide who steps forward with a sheet of pale green parchment paper, headed with the insignia of The Agency, and stamped with its intricate unforgeable watermark. ‘I took the liberty of drafting this before you came.’
The Young Man skims the letter, and feels his stomach lurch. It’s his offer of resignation.
‘You may leave, once we have your signature.’
The Young Man’s mouth is dry. He thinks of the allegiance he’s sworn to His Majesty and shakes his head.
‘Your choice entirely.’ The Duke sighs, then drifts over to shake the Young Man’s hand. ‘Goodness, you’re cold. Well. Nice to have met you.’ Then he turns to leave, pausing as he passes the Impassive Presence. ‘Where are they now?’
‘His wife has just entered the Medieval Quarter, sir, on her way to a doctor’s appointment. Gynaecological in nature, possibly a confirmation of pregnancy.’
‘My congratulations!’ The Duke claps his hands in glee. ‘Continue.’
‘His twin daughters are on their way to the swimming baths, though one of them will sit out the lesson due to a verruca. They will lunch on cheese sandwiches, grapes and yoghurt, and apple juice.’
‘Commendably healthy.’ The Duke nods his thanks and withdraws.
The door thuds with the finality of the first coffin nail. The Young Man tastes salt, wipes away mucus from his nose with the back of his hand.
The Unctuous Aide settles at a smaller desk to the side of the Duke’s. He’s sorting through a stack of post, slitting open each envelope circumspectly with an elegant silver letter opener. Glancing at the contents, he mostly tuts and shakes his head before extending his right arm to delicately drop the offending communication into the bin. Occasionally he retrieves bundles of red bank notes. Then he murmurs in approval, and scribbles the name of the sender and amount into a gilt-edged ledger.
The Young Man prays hard to a god whose existence he has always denied, until the room stops spinning and all becomes clear.
‘Listen carefully, I don’t know how much time we’ve got.’ The Young Man is half-walking, half-running through a sea of people, every single one of them moving against him, stepping in front of him as he tries to squeeze through, or stopping dead to answer a call or make a point to their companion. The chauffeur has returned him and his phone to the spot he’d been taken from. Fifty excruciatingly drawn-out minutes have already passed since the Unctuous Aide sanctioned his release.
‘I haven’t time to explain. But they took me to the Duke’s Demesne this morning.’ He hears his wife’s stunned intake of breath. ‘Get our passports, pick up the girls, take a taxi to the airport. Pack nothing. Tell no-one, not even your mother. I’m on my way to the bank. I’ll meet you there shortly. I’m sorry.’
The Unctuous Aide knocks gently on the door. ‘Are you awake, Your Grace?’
‘Yes, yes, come!’
The Duke is sitting in a wicker chair at his bedroom window, eating scrambled eggs on toast from a tray on his lap.
‘He signed, Your Grace.’
‘Of course he did. He’s an intelligent young man.’
The Duke holds out his hand for the evidence. He scans the letter and laughs. He laughs until his body shakes. He laughs until the tea spills out of its cup and speeds across the surface of the tray. He wipes his eyes with his handkerchief and explains to the confused Unctuous Aide why the Young Man’s name cannot possibly be King Croesus.
The Unctuous Aide stutters an apology. His face flames red. ‘Of course, we can fetch him back immediately, Your Grace, take care of him.’
‘No! I want to know every single minute, day and night, where he is, what he’s doing, and who he’s doing it with. But do not harm one single hair on his head, not one. Understood?’
The Duke dismisses the Unctuous Aide with a wave of his hand. ‘He and his ingenuity will be useful to us in the future.’
He stares out of the window. The contrail from a plane spreads lazily into the blue sky. He smiles.