Gibbous House

By Ewan Lawrie

Nicholas Nickleby meets Psycho in a gothic, 19th-century noir

Friday, 3 July 2015

More Stuff to Read...

I don't know, maybe you are impatient for my book. Maybe you're sick and tired of waiting. Average production time, acceptance to hardcopy on sale in Waterstones (okay Amazon if you're lucky), is 18 months to 2 years. Yes, you can self-publish in the time it takes to ignore the number of times you've written "to" instead of "too", but more traditional models are - well - slow. This is a good thing. You are more likely to have shelled out for a book with no crass solecisms if people have put time and effort into its production. Crowd-funding with Unbound is no different: there are very, very few (that means NOT ANY) first, second or even third drafts of anything that are remotely publishable. This means that your generous pledging will probably not bear fruit for 18 months. But what a fruit! Congratulations to Unbound for not compromising on - let's say - quality.

Anyway, in the absence of any hardcopy "masterpiece" as yet, here is a very silly story. It didn't happen - but it could have.

The Wrong Morris

'Cor-por-al Maw-riss.' The tall black man drawled my rank and name as if trying it out for a character in a play.

'Yessir, Loo-tenant Washington!' I stood up and to attention. The Yanks liked that sort of thing, although I can't say I ever got used to it.

'Get along to Headquarters, they gotta job for yuh.'

I saluted him and got in return the perky wave that is common to the United States Air Force and drum majorettes in bad musicals.

The Lieutenant mumbled a 'stuck-up Brit' and I ignored it. I knew I'd made no friends at Lakenheath. Surely it wouldn't be long before someone found out they'd sent the wrong Morris.

Her Majesty's Royal Air Force had seconded me to the USAF, at RAF Lakenheath. There'd been a little bother in Berlin with a working girl, so I should have been handing out blankets and sheets at RAF Benbecula, a place on few people's list of preferred postings. It was an admin mistake which I wasn't keen to correct. At the Yank base I got aircraft technicians to sign for spanners. It was a long way from listening in to Soviet communications. I'd been a Sergeant before and since they couldn't prove the girl was working for the Stasi as well as Mon Cherie's, they'd only busted me as far as Corporal. It was the end of Berlin for me though.

At least I was getting used to the uniforms by that time. The Yanks seemed to get medals for everything, but there were a few decorated Vietnam veterans around. Many were pilots and therefore officers. Some of them stared right through you when you saluted them, not seeing a uniform but ragged trousers and a different coloured skin.

Once inside the HQ building, I followed an Airwoman 1st Class into the Chief Clerk's office. We both watched her leave. I bet myself he was thinking she was first class too.

'Maw-riss, ain't it?'

'Yes, Sergeant.'

The Chief Clerk waved an arm burdened with many stripes towards the open door of his office at the rows of clerks at their desks. There must have been around 50 of them.

'You can call me Chief, Corporal.'

I thought how much he looked like Ernest Borgnine, but didn't mention it. He stood up,

'Follow me,' he said and put on a forage cap.

We went out of the Personnel and Administration pool and along to an office with Base Adjutant written on the door. My escort knocked. There was a shouted 'C'mon in'. Ernest opened the door, marched in, gave a genuine salute and said,

'It's the Limey, suh, from Stores.'

The Base Adjutant was a full Colonel. On a RAF station that size – if we had had one the size of Lakenheath – he most likely would have been, at best, a Wing Commander, but much more likely a Squadron Leader. A Major, if you like. I could count on the fingers of no hands the times I'd had an interview with someone of the Colonel's rank, at least in uniform.

His desk was very large, though it did not occupy much of the floor space in his office. Somehow he managed to make the desk look unaffected, just incidental. Perhaps that was due to his own size. On one wall were photographs of planes and politicians, plaudits and certificates all framed in an identical dark wood. It was hard to believe that he would cart such things all around the world from Guam to Guatemala.

'Sit down,' he looked at some paper on his desk. 'Cor-por-al Morris, isn't it?'

'Yessir,' I was still rigidly at attention, having thrown up a sharp salute on entering his office.

'I mean it, we're hats off as of this moment, son.'

He had pilots wings over his breast pocket. He was about 32 or 3. How in hell he'd ended up in Administration, I had no idea. It conjured pictures of catastrophic missions ending in permanent grounding. Perhaps that was why the photos travelled around with him.

I took off my beret and sat in the armchair. The Colonel opened a drawer and pulled out a packet of Lucky Strike. He shook the packet and offered one of the two protruding cigarettes to me. After he lit his own, he passed me his Zippo. I glanced at the crest, 352nd Tactical Fighter Squadron. Super Sabres out of Phan Rang. He'd have been in his late 20's in 1971. I lit the cigarette.

'Know anything about 'Nam?' He held out his hand for the lighter.

I didn't trot out the joke about North Luffenham, where I'd learned my Russian. He'd have pronounced it 'Luffen-hayum' anyway.

'A bit, reading's a good way to pass a night shift.'

He stared at me for a while, then, 'and a boring day-job.' He straightened up in his chair,

'Well, I'd sure be wondering what this was about if I were you, son.'

'I expect you'll tell me soon, sir.'

He steepled his hands and put his elbows on the desk, I was sure they taught that at every Officer Training College in the world, from Cranwell to Point Cook.

'You learned Russian, right?'

'I did, sir.'

He thumbed through a file,

'Outstanding student, near native skills, recommend for...' The Colonel looked up at me, 'you know what it says here under the x-es?'

'We never see our personnel records, sir.'

'You must know.'

'It might have been embassy duties, sir.'

'You aren't that naïve, son.'

'Doesn't matter, sir. I went to Berlin. You must know what they do at Marienfelde. We did the same.'

'Have it your own way. I've gotta job for you. You can say no, right off the bat and I'll say have a nice day. Or you can listen to what it is, but once you know, you'll be doing it, come what may.'

'Is it treasonable?'

He raised his eyebrows,

'If that means what I think it does, then no. In fact, you'll be helping Détente a little. Or at least that's what they're saying in Washington, you understand?'

I shrugged, 'Why not?'

The Colonel stood. He wasn't so tall standing up. He had the shortest legs I'd ever seen under a massive torso. He should have been a giant. Instead, he was merely average height. He went over to the door, opened it, peered out at the clerks in the huge pool and shut it again. There was a hi-fi system against one wall, he switched on the radio. It must have been Radio 2. Ol' Blue Eyes was warbling Strangers in the Night.

The American was smiling by the time he took his seat again.

'You do have a passport?'

I nodded.

'You'll fly from here to Frankfurt, then you'll get the Military Train to Berlin. We'll give you orders... papers allowing you to travel on your passport. You'll have to leave your military ID with me.'

My blue cardboard F1250 looked tiny on his desk.


'You won't be staying, you'll be taken to Schoenefeld and you'll go onward from there.'

'Onward?' I felt as dull as I must have sounded.

'If I go on now, you won't be turning back, capisce?'

He didn't look Italian and his name badge said Morgenstern.

I took a last drag on the Lucky and he handed me an ashtray.

'OK,' I breathed out the smoke into his face. He didn't flinch. He did take a deep breath before starting to speak.

'You'll be escorting a VIP on an unofficial visit to Moscow. The VIP is visiting a V VIP at the request of said V VIP. This is a non-military matter, however it is beyond top secret codeword level. The visit will take place over the course of no more than two hours within the confines of Moscow Shermetevo Airport. The face to face will take place in a private lounge. You and the subject will not leave the Airport except on the return Interflug flight to Berlin. You will also be the interpreter for the V and the V V.'

He had a sheet of paper in front of him, but hadn't looked at it once.


'You're a sign of good faith. If the summit goes wrong and the Soviets are dissatisfied, they get to keep you.'

'Not the VIP?'

'He's far too important for that.'

'Where do I meet the VIP?'

'At Schoenefeld Airport. In Berlin. There'll be no problem with identification.'

'No codeword? No 'Hot Enough for June?'

He laughed, but not because he was a fan of Dirk Bogarde.

'There'll be no problem with identification. Just wait at the Interflug check-in.'

And there wasn't. There was no problem with anything. I'd read my orders and could see nothing unusual in them. The strange thing was that people only had to look at them for a second and I felt like Ali Baba. This had not been my experience when presenting my secondment orders at the Main Gate, on posting to Lakenheath. It had taken 3 hours to get as far as the MP Picquet Post.

I was in the main concourse, rushing to the East German airline's desk. I'd stopped for a beer that became three in the wink of an eye or maybe half-an-hour. It was a night flight and if the rumours were true about the in-flight service, a stiff drink was the best pre-flight routine.

As the Colonel had said, there was no problem with identification. I recognised the trilby and the raincoat. I held out a hand and told him he was waiting for me. He gave me a piercing look,


'No, not really.'

'Get your boarding pass and let's go then.'

The starchy blonde on the check-in clearly didn't recognise him, although he'd made no effort at disguise. Perhaps it was too ridiculous to be true, or Interflug's staff really were trained to be as impassive as a guardsman at Buckingham Palace.

And it went on. The two pairs of bad-suits fore and aft all the way out to the aircraft steps
acknowledged neither of us. The stew who welcomed us aboard had all the charm of Rosa Klebb and I steered well clear of her flat and shiny lace-ups. The VIP and I took our seats near the front, there was no class on Interflug, a truly Communist airline.

'Why?' I asked, thinking to take his mind off the take-off, which was making the runway seem like a ploughed field.

'Ask not what you can do...'

'I heard you weren't so keen on the Democrats now.'

He laughed. 'They're all jerks. The other crowd made me an offer I couldn't refuse.'

The man looked out of the window, but there was nothing to see except the lights of East Berlin.

'You like music. That stuff they do now? All those hippies?'

'Yeah, I do.'

'It's crap, you know. There's no romance, no swing. Nuthin'.'

'Nobody likes their father's music, nobody likes their son's.'


'Who are we going to see?'

'I don't know, son. Somebody important, that's all I know.'

He was still wearing the trilby. I wondered if he hadn't brought the toupée. Not wearing it would have been an effective disguise, although he didn't appear to need one. I felt as though we were in some parallel world where he wasn't and never had been famous. He pulled the hat down over his eyes,

'Might as well get some sleep son, it's going to be a long day.'

He slept until the landing, when he held tight to my forearm and his armrest.

'Where are you supposed to be?' I asked.

'The Agency recommended saying I was visiting family in Hoboken. I told 'em I'm never going back there. The papers say I'm in Switzerland getting the monkey glands treatment, everyone'll believe that.'

He gave a bitter laugh as the wheels touched tarmac.

We left the Tupolev 134 last of all, except for Rosa Klebb. We were bracketed into the terminal by the Slavic cousins of the East Berlin goons who had escorted us onto the plane. Inside the terminal there were Red Army uniforms everywhere, AK-47's at the ready. We turned off into a narrow corridor. The interval between uniforms became shorter and shorter. There were ten either side of the door at the end. The first pair of heavies knocked. The door opened and we were ushered in. There were only two KGB in the room, unless the pianist was one too.

The man on the sofa looked ill. He coughed several times and spat into a silk handkerchief. There were 3 bottles of vodka on the table and two glasses.

I opened my mouth, Russian came out,

'Leonid Ilyich, may I present...'

The old man interrupted,

'Kto ne evo znayet? Who doesn't know him? Tell him to speak to the pianist, I want to hear him sing.'

My travelling companion went over to the woman seated at the piano. He whispered in her ear then turned to me,

'Ask him what he wants me to sing.'

I turned to Brezhnev, but he shouted, spilling some vodka as he did so,

'Mоя́ Доро́га, Mоя́ Доро́га! Moyá Doróga, Moyá Doróga!'

I winked at the American and said, 'Guess, Francis Albert, guess.'

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Judy Woods
 Judy Woods says:

My way, of course!

posted 5th January 2016

Jack O'Donnell
 Jack O'Donnell says:

From JFK to little Ronnie to Brezhnev he took the blows and did it -his way- but not my way. No way, my way. A good read.

posted 5th January 2016

Ewan Lawrie
 Ewan Lawrie says:

Well done both! Why do I never get notified about comments??

posted 10th March 2016

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