An Exalted Commission - Part 1

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Chapter One - A Family Man

It was in the depths of winter, 1979 — 'The Winter of Discontent', as the media had named it. This is the year also that had seen the acceleration of the downhill slide that was eventually to topple the Royal Family from its pedestal of the nation's almost universal respect. The scandal of the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson was by this time almost forgotten, so it was with Princess Margaret, the Queen's sister, seeking a divorce from the Earl of Snowdon because of her 'association' with Roddy Llewellyn that the rot had begun to set in.

A light covering of snow lay upon the ground that mid-December Sunday afternoon, and, not surprisingly, it was very cold. Beautiful though the garden looked from Bim's window, he was not looking out and admiring that scene. The reason for that was that his thoughts lay elsewhere.

Like the rest of the population, he and his family were severely affected by this aforementioned opprobrious Winter of Discontent. One of the consequences was that they had no coal in the house and, to make matters worse, at this time there was also an electricity power cut, so that the sole source of heat in their home was the stinking paraffin stove in their living room, around which they were all now huddled. They were even unable to use this form of heating ad lib, as all heating oils were in short supply, also through the strikes. This time it was the transport workers.

So Bim, his wife Harry (short for Harriet), and their three young children were all stuck in there together now, trying to keep warm and, more or less, taking it in turns to grumble.

The United Kingdom's troubles had been accumulating for years under the benign if lax leadership (or perhaps better described as the lack of same), of Harold Wilson. That prime minister's renowned remark, 'The pound in your pocket has not been devalued', would have made a fitting epitaph, considering the fact that the rate of inflation under his ægis soon peaked to over 25% per annum. Sterling had lost 12½% of its buying power in three months, the pound fell below two American dollars for the first time in history and the nation's bankruptcies hit the highest ever level. The situation had been rapidly becoming worse over the previous couple of years, for even as far back as October of the previous year there had at one time been eight hundred corpses in London that the striking workers were refusing to bury.

Michael Edwards had now been given the task of taking over the direction of strike-torn British Leyland, in an effort to appoint someone who could stand up to the union's notorious 'Red Robbo' and try to save the only remaining British-owned car manufacturer from bankruptcy; and that symbol of British stability and workmanship, Rolls Royce, was now in the hands of receivers.

The Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, had probably just put paid to his Liberal party's chances of replacing the Conservatives as a natural alternative to Labour in the foreseeable future, with the revelation of his fatal association with a known male prostitute, and the 'Yorkshire Ripper' was still at large.

Callaghan ('Sunny Jim', the imposer of the crippling purchase tax at up to 50% that was to drive us even closer to a state of national bankruptcy) had by this time taken on the role of Prime Minister after the sudden, surprising and unexplained resignation of Wilson. However, even this new premier's Parliament had already been blacked out by striking power workers who wanted their wages to keep ahead of the current rate of inflation, thus prolonging the factors that had led to the recent spiralling cycle of the inflatory state of the country's financial affairs.

Swan Hunter had just needed to sack 700 workers, having lost the £52,000,000 order that they had needed to keep them in work, and all because the employees, through their union, had refused to agree to them putting in the overtime that would have been necessary, if they were to complete the much-needed contract by the stipulated time. The workers had thereby themselves started that fine old firm, along with the hundreds of others dependent upon it, down the slippery slope leading to eventual closure. They were also contributing in a big way to the running-down of the whole area's economy and the devastating unemployment that was to follow.

Let us not forget that even one's daily bread had been rationed from the November before; food and oil had run short through the strike of lorry drivers and this was followed by rail strikes and public employees' strikes. The situation had deteriorated so badly even as far back as the previous January that there were heaps of rotting and rat-infested rubbish building up on the streets and hospitals were often being forced to turn critically-ill patients away for lack of supplies. By February, the dead had also been left unburied in Liverpool as a consequence of their grave-diggers' strike and over a thousand schools had by that time been forced to close, as there was no heating oil to be had.

This profound industrial chaos had been developing in the country for four or more years and now, at the onset of winter, it seemed to Bim that the police were the only ones who were not holding the nation to ransom for more money. Yes, he reflected, the country was truly on its uppers.

As far back as 9 March, 1966, with the nation held to ransom by a long seamen's strike, our premier had been forced to write begging letters to the US president, Lyndon Johnson. Then Wilson, during a bitter argument with Lord Cromer, governor of the Bank of England (who had claimed it was necessary to raise the bank rate by 1% to avoid a later sterling crisis and the consequential forced catastrophic devaluation of the pound), had threatened to sack Cromer and close down our national bank forever. Wilson got his own way (motivated solely by a desire to avoid detracting from his chances of winning the forthcoming election, called for 31 March, 1966) and this decision was the primary cause of the famous 'Pound in your pocket...' devaluation the following year.

What Bim did not know was that a strike of local government workers in a month or two's time (1980) would help in making the poor suffering public convinced of the need for a change. In this way it was to turn the balance of power, in the election that followed the resignation of the Labour government, and ultimately result in the 'Iron Lady' taking over and 'handbagging' the unions into submission.

Moreover, whatever might be said for or against her, no-one can deny that she it was who managed to hoist this country out of that slough of despond, where it had become the laughingstock of the rest of the civilised world, and where the nag called the 'The Militant Tendency' was fast dragging the coach called 'The Sick Man Of Europe' down into the gulf called 'Bankruptcy'. One of the most extraordinary facets of that state of affairs has been the speed with which so many of our citizens have forgotten what it was like in those not-so-far-off times.

However, we are running ahead of ourselves. Let us therefore return to the domestic situation in the Trotter household, where Harry was preparing to light a couple of candles — and even these were now becoming difficult, if not impossible, to find in the shops.

'Shall we get the kids' coats and wellies on, Harry, and take them out of this foul atmosphere — perhaps we could all go for a walk down to the rec, and let 'em play snowballs,' Bim (Detective Chief Inspector Abimilech Trotter, when he was on duty) suggested to his wife.

'No, love,' she told him firmly. 'It would take ten minutes or more to get us all ready, and it'll be dark in half an hour or so — you know how the nights have drawn in these last few weeks. And see how overcast it's becoming — I think there's likely to be more snow on the way. Apart from that, if we let them start playing about in the snow, there'll be tears before very long — if not because one of them gets hurt, then it will be through hot-aches in their hands. You can tell them a story if you like, while I go into that icy kitchen to fill a kettle and boil it on the gas-stove to make us a nice warming cup of tea.'

'Thank goodness the gas men aren't on strike yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them follow the others any day now,' her detective husband exclaimed with a wry grin. 'Well kids,' he commenced, 'are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

'Once upon a time, many years ago and far away in the land of Goonawallaga, there lived an unfortunate woodcutter and his family; their name was Brown, they were very poor and they lived miles away from the nearest town, in a small country village.

'It was a freezing cold night and Peter, Paul and Daisy were all alone in the downstairs room of their tiny little cottage, with no mum and dad in there with them — that was because their parents were both upstairs ill in bed, and none of them had anything to eat, because Father Brown had been too ill to go to work and earn any money for several weeks. There was no National Health Service all that time ago in that far-off land, and neither the grocer nor the coal man would supply them with anything without being paid. So the larder was empty and they had no fire to warm themselves up by, so Peter and Paul were both crying loudly because they were so cold and hungry.' He hesitated in the hope of comment, and was not disappointed.

'Why wasn't Daisy crying too, dad? Was she too old to cry?'

'No, my love. Daisy was their little puppy-dog, and I don't think puppies have anything to make tears with in their eyes, so they can't cry. But although she couldn't cry, she was certainly moaning, and instead of wagging her little doggy tail as she did when she wasn't cold and hungry, she had curled it down out of sight underneath her tummy.

'Just then there was a knock at the door. Daisy barked and Peter, who was older than his brother, got up to unbolt the door. But young Paul called out, "No, Peter, Mummy always tells us we must never answer the door to strangers, because there are some funny people about!"

'So Peter went and peered out of the window. He let out a cry, and the puppy started barking even more furiously.

'"What's the matter?" asked Paul in a frightened voice.

'"There's an ugly old creature out there wearing a pointed black hat and with a long hooked nose, and she's carrying a broomstick. I think it must be an old witch who has come to cast a nasty spell over us...."'

Just then Harry came through the door from the kitchen, bearing their tray of drinks. 'That’s quite enough of that, Bim, I might have known I couldn't trust you. You're frightening the daylights out of these poor little souls.' There was a cry in unison from the three youngsters, assuring Harry that they were not a bit afraid, which she ignored. Bim sighed, and aborted his embryonic tale with 'But it was only the next-door neighbour — she was dressed up like that because it was Halloween. She was bringing them a present of a big meat pudding, a pumpkin pie for afters and a bone for Daisy, as she realised they must all be very hungry. She also brought some medicine for Mr and Mrs Brown, who soon got better after they had taken that, and they all lived happily ever after.... There, was that better, Harry?'

She chose not to reply, and silently poured out the tea. His wife had 'tae'n a dryness', as they say in Scotland.

For no reason he could think of, because he was not usually the sort of fellow to look on the black side of life, a wave of depression seemed to flow over Bim. Was it all worthwhile? It seemed that however good one's intentions were, others would try to ruin everything that went with a life of peace. Even the kids were being made to suffer with a cold house and school and rationed food.

Unusually for him, he felt unsettled, disturbed; rather than let the others see him in this state, Bim took his cup of tea through the front door and outside so that he could breathe in a few lungsful of the cold fresh air as the dusk began to creep in from the east. A heron came lolloping over the house, his great wings silhouetted against the darkening sky. The bird, legs trailing behind him and neck folded, leaving only his long spear-like beak projecting out in front, glided down into the garden of the big house half a dozen dwellings along the road. It would be goodbye to a few more of their goldfish.

Bim was standing there, his brown eyes staring into the distance but seeing little of his surroundings. He stood a sturdy six feet and his dark brown hair was now just beginning to become grey at the temples.

A light breeze was stirring the skeletal oak tree across the road that had shed its leaves long since and now made an attractive pattern against the bright western sky, although a big dark cloud was approaching, driven by the breeze blowing down from the north. A hen blackbird was perching on one of the oak's topmost branches and not noticing the silent figure standing there halfway down the path leading from the front door. She flew down onto the bird table in the centre of their front lawn in the hope of finding a few bits for her supper, but although she pecked in all the corners, she was too late.

Reflecting on the tree, all stripped down to withstand the winter weather, and the bird, surviving in its own way, Bim's thoughts dwelt despairingly on their human weakness and self-inflicted adversities. Ah well, one has to admit that man seems to be the only creature that insists on evermore spoiling everything for himself. Having learnt how to cope with the worst of nature's elements can throw at him, no sooner does he overcome one of his homemade pitfalls than he digs himself another.

Although beginning to feel the cold, he did not go back inside yet because he felt too depressed. Everything seemed to be going wrong; was life really worth it? It was worry enough trying to bring up a family that one could be proud of with all the bad examples around them, and what with the nationwide industrial unrest, the Chief Constable wanting to haul him over the coals for something or other in the morning.... He focused his eyes absently on the bare oak tree and then moved them on to the evening star that had just begun to gleam through a gap in those clouds that had been gradually blotting out the evening sky while he had been dreaming.

Whatever was the matter with him? It was not like him to behave like this. That tree was there before he was born and would be for a long time to come; the star almost from everlasting to everlasting. He would be here on earth for just a moment in time compared with most of creation and nature would carry on as if he had never existed when he had gone.

Suddenly the feeling of depression passed and he felt better, and only just in time: as he turned to walk back to the front door, one of the sashes in the bay window opened and Harry called out, wanting to know if he was trying to catch pneumonia or something. He went back into the house, returned to his seat beside the oil stove and discovered his wife was back to her old cheerful self.

It was not until after eight o'clock, when the children were at last tucked away warmly in their beds and the two were sitting there by candlelight, huddled together on the settee for warmth, that Bim came out with what had really all the time been worrying him, nagging away there semi-dormant at the back of his mind.

'I just can't think what that great goon wants to see me for tomorrow — as far as I know he's got nothing to complain about and there are no complications at the nick — in fact, things are fairly quiet there at the moment. He normally only wants to see one of us when the PM or one of the other political top brass has had him by the short and curlies over some aspect of the crime situation. So why can't he just get out of bed at his usual time, lunch at his club among his Masonic mates and leave me in peace — that's what I'd like to know!'

'Which is just about the first time I've ever heard you admit that you occasionally got a moment's peace down there at the station,' Harry told him with a grin; she wasn't one to be put-out for long.

'Well, I'm talking about comparatively,' Bim replied sulkily, and concluded, 'Anyway, certainly there's nothing for him to poke his nose into in our Chelmsford section just now.'

The 'great goon' appellation was perhaps rather an unfair description of the Chief Constable, Sir Anstruther Dealer, MBE, as there had always been a certain amount of common sense lurking behind his foppish manner. Fifty years earlier he would probably have affected a monocle; now he simply lisped his 'rrrs' and used a lot of 'I says' and repeated phrases in his conversations.

Unlike many of his fellow chief constables, he had not come up through the ranks, had never walked a beat, having followed a military career before joining the force, so most of the rank and file felt happier when he was out of the way. He did not seem to let that worry him in the slightest and had never been shy about putting his oar in regarding subjects concerning which he had no personal experience.

'Perhaps he wants to pin a medal on your chest for all the good work you've done lately — that is, if you've been doing any and not swilling tea all day,' Harry suggested with tongue in cheek.

Entering into her light-hearted mood at last, he replied, 'If he thinks I'm going to accept any honours from him, he can think again. If they come to their senses and realise what a lot of medals I deserve, I want them all to be handed out from a silver tray and to receive them from Her Majesty's own fair hand! Anyway, young woman, let's turn this wretched stove out and get up to bed ourselves — that's about the only place where we'll be able to keep warm.'

'Right!' said his wife, who then added with a chuckle, 'And bring the wireless up with you for us to listen to the BBC for an hour or so, and try and keep your devious mind occupied, bearing in mind that we've decided that three kids are quite enough — and sometimes too many!'

It was snowing hard again on the Monday morning as Bim got his own breakfast of cereals ready and then ate it. He had left the family all still tucked up warmly in their beds, when, well before eight o'clock, he went out to shovel the snow from in front of the garage doors so that he could open them to get the car out.

Once on the road, the wheels spun as he tried to accelerate away, the packed snow of the day before that now lay underneath having frozen hard during the night; the more recent overnight snowfall that Harry had predicted lay deceptively soft over it. With difficulty he managed to get the car back into the garage, wisely deciding to walk as far as the bus stop on the main thoroughfare, where the council would by now almost certainly have salted the road.

Although Bim was a quarter of an hour later at the nick than he usually was, he was still the first of the day-shift personnel to put in an appearance. Ten minutes after his arrival, Superintendent Jolley, his boss, turned up. Although Bim never took advantage of the situation and always addressed the super as 'sir' when on duty, the super was also his only real friend, for although the chief inspector was mostly at ease in the company of all his acquaintances, he had never found it easy to make really close friends.

'Nasty old day, sir — surely you didn't drive here?'

'Well, I started out that way, but after nearly running into the ditch at the end of our close, I decided to come in by bus, so I slithered home and put the car back in the garage — and here I am, safe and sound, if a bit late. I should think the awful weather we've had over the weekend means that you can breathe again, though. "One man's meat", you know the saying. This snow and ice should make it unlikely that his nibs will face these road conditions and get here in time for the ten o'clock appointment he asked me to arrange with you. In fact, I should think we'll be getting a phone call any minute now, firstly to make sure we've got to work in spite of the weather and secondly to put off his visit.' About all that, however, Jolley would prove to be wrong.

'Any idea what case it is he's wanting to poke his nose into? I mean, what's this all about, sir?' Bim asked, rather apprehensively, in spite of his effort to appear nonchalant.

'Well, yes — I suppose I must admit I do have an inkling, but I think you'd be better off facing the CC with an open mind. Anyway, if he can't get here for a day or two, we'll be thankful you aren't having to worry your pretty little head over it, won't we?'

That's all very well, thought Bim, but it concerned him even more now that he knew his friend and boss believed it was something that could give him cause for worry. Anyway, the unknown can cause a lot more apprehension than known hard facts, however bad they might eventually prove to be. But he knew Jolley would have told him all he knew, if he thought it would have helped.

Well, there was his usual Monday morning routine to follow, the mail to peruse and his team's provisional week's work to allocate. Provisional, because it was sure to have to be re-arranged as the crime situation changed and developed from day to day. Thus, by ten o'clock he was so deeply immersed in his routine work that his chief con's visit was completely out of mind when there was a sharp knock at his door and the duty officer poked his head inside without waiting to be called in, which procedure meant that something urgent was afoot.

'Thought you’d better know, sir, the CC's just ridden into the yard on horseback and he's yelling for someone to take over his charger! Do you know whether there's anyone on the staff who knows one end of a horse from the other, sir?'

Bim enlightened him. 'Yes, that new young girl on the switchboard came here from the Happygo Riding Stables up the road; she'll be delighted to ride him back there and feed him and I'm sure they'll look after him there till His Worship's ready to go back.'

'No offence, sir,' replied the officer with a grin, 'but that him's looked to me like a her! And now I’d better get back sharpish, before the bu... I mean, His Worship has a fit!'

It took Bim a second or two to collect his thoughts. Then, seeing the higgledy-piggledy state of the paperwork on his desk, he made some attempt at getting it into orderly piles before the great one saw it. Five minutes later, trying to look unconcerned from behind his seemingly tidy desk, he called, 'Come in!' after the double knock sounded on his office door.

Accompanied by his super, Jolley, Sir Anstruther Dealer came through into the smallish office, wearing jodhpurs and a short cavalry coat; he was carrying his riding hat in one hand and held a crop in the other. There was only one spare chair in there and as Bim got to his feet to welcome his guest, the super told him that he would not be staying and then turned to the newcomer.

'It's some time since you met Detective Chief Inspector Trotter, sir, but I have little doubt you will remember him. So I'll leave the pair of you to discuss the business you came about.' With that, he hurried out of the room, seemingly glad to be out of whatever it was that Bim was to be involved in.

The CC put his crop and hat on the desk, as he could see nowhere else to put them, removed his gloves and laid them beside the other things and then took the only other seat. The inspector, awaiting his opening words with some trepidation, decided on an attempt on humour.

'May I take your sword, sir?'

Chief Constable Sir Anthony Dealer simply gave an awkward smile and then held out his hand; so far so good, thought the inspector, at least he's not too mad to shake hands.

'Of course I wemember you, Twotter — wouldn't be here if I did not. Ah, I say, I guess you didn't expect to see me here on time, what? Not with weather like this! But you can't keep a cavalry man down, you know, can't keep him down.' Sitting himself in the spare chair and then seeing Bim still on his feet, he added, 'West your own bum too, Twotter, we don't want to be too formal, do we? Don't want to be too formal. I wonder, now has Jolley given you a wough outline of what I'm here for?'

'No, sir, I'm afraid he hasn't given me any inkling of what you want to see me about. I did ask him, of course, but he told me that he thought I ought to hear what you have to tell me with no preformed ideas in my head. So at the moment I haven't a clue, and I have to confess that I can hardly wait to hear what mystery it is that you have to unravel for me.'

'Well, I'm wather sowwy he hasn't put you in the picture, because it will be sort of embawasing for me.... Well then, let me make a start in enlightening you. It isn’t going to take very long, but I thought it better for me to come and talk to you about it all myself, talk to you myself personally, you know. Mark you, had I known what the weather was going to be like when I made that awangement last week, I might have decided otherwise —; might well have decided otherwise, you know. Hm, hm... er... I say, I hardly know where to begin, Twotter, the damn thing's so awkward — you, see it's a situation I've never been in before.

'You must understand this — I'm not at all sure I'm entitled to order you to take on this task — take on this sort of unofficial task, you know. Well, not exactly unofficial — wather, shall we say, iwegular. As I told you, I'm sorry, weally, that Jolley hasn't already put you in the picture; then I would know how you felt about it. I wealised that he wasn't at all happy when I described the situation to him, and was told he wasn't prepared to instruct you as your superior officer. Which means, I wegret to say, that I've been put in the position of needing humbly to ask you to take on this wotten job, and you will be entitled to say no — perfectly within your wights to wefuse, you know.'

There was a short pause and Bim, now thoroughly confused, felt like saying, 'For goodness sake, spit it out, sir, and let me know the worst.' Instead, he held his tongue and waited for his Chief Constable to pluck up the courage to confess what he was hoping for him, a simple detective, to take on.

An Exalted Commission Archive

Len (Snowie) Baynes

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