As the train crossed the Austro-German frontier at Passau the Captain sank back into the plush seat. Suddenly his head was swimming with the memory of that last, or for that matter his first visit to Vienna by train on this same route. It had been many years past: The Captain had been in his late teens, or to be precise just approaching twenty years of age. He had not perceptively changed much since that time.
At twenty’ he had looked older, more mature than his contemporaries; many said this was because his life had been dominated by mixing with older people, but whatever the reason he was now certainly older, and slightly thicker through. Surprisingly, he was also taller, now standing at a little over six feet or in modern parlance 1.8288 metres.
From a very lithe body as a youth he now weighed-in at 180 lbs. Which’ had remained fairly static despite his life-style. Some twenty-five years on his skin was still smooth, with only the merest signs of laughter creases around the light blue eyes which’ would appear to go right through those whom incurred his displeasure.
The slightly full’ sensual lips were surmounted by a clipped, brown moustache, in the manner of David Niven, the late film actor: In fact his general persona was very much in keeping with the famous actor rather than anyone else except for a long dead uncle.
Douglas DuValet, the Captain, had always wondered if it was because of that first visit to Vienna that’ his full-time professional life had taken the course that it had, and then he could only ponder, for no-one now could tell him; and certainly not his Lords and Masters at the Ministry, or Department as they preferred to be referred too.
They would not tell him, in fact they would not tell him anything directly. All communication, be orders or instruction, came through the post or via one of the new courier companies that now operated in competition with Royal Mail.
These packages came endorsed with the legend- ‘From the Department of the Environment, Ministry of Transport. London’.
No telephone or direct contact with the huge austere building which’ housed this little known branch of the civil service was situated just off the Horseferry Road, was supposedly allowed. This had been abundantly clear when he had attended this building for his interview; an interview that was the final hurdle in securing a position as a ranking Civil Servant.
The job had supposedly been in the Ministry of Transport until the event of the interview, then’ it became clear that this was not the case. The job, if one could call it that, turned out to be more in the service of one of her Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Intelligence Agencies.
Having applied, some twelve months earlier, to the Ministry of Transport for a position in their service, and having but one brief reply and nothing else Douglas had left well alone.
However, unbeknown to him, his newly acquired young attractive wife had had the temerity to ‘phone London and ask… “What the hell was going on with her husband’s application”: Somewhat taken aback by this sally from a mere ‘outsider’ the men at the ministry assured her that a letter to the Captain was now in the course of preparation, and all was well with the application.
It was with delight that Elizabeth’ Douglas’s wife, saw the Government crested envelope on their doormat two days later for it was at her instigation that he had applied for the job.
Being newly married she had had some reservations about his work in the tourist industry with all of its temptations of foreign locations, and pretty girls thrown in for good measure: It was enough to set the alarm bells ringing, and had she herself not been seduced by his easy ways and manner yet alone his looks? In the event her fears had been groundless, for he was more than content with his ‘lot’; a lot that was not to last for fate was to deal them a bitter blow that would take her from him to that better place in the sky.
On the day of Douglas’s interview’ the sun was shining over London and the drab Government buildings along the Thames looked as if they might have some warmth within them. However, this was not the case: In the Reception of the offices used by the Ministry of Transport there was an air of almost cold hostility.
The Duty Clerk hardly looked-up from a large board on which were listed dozens of names, times and numbers. Around the entrance’ area members of the Corp of Commissionaires stood attending to their mundane duties and paying little attention to Douglas.
“Do you have an appointment?” The clerk asked petulantly…“Of course, the name’s DuValet, Douglas MacDonald DuValet… Captain DuValet.”
Douglas never used the rank in normal circumstances, it was from a bygone era, but the man’s attitude rankled with Douglas and the invitation to the interview was addressed with the title. The abruptness of the reply with just the hint of a hard accent and the piercing blue eyes brought a new look of understanding into the Clerk, for now he smiled’ and the response was more genial…“Just one moment… if you will Sir”
His hand, which had been tracing the names down and across the board signalled to the Commissionaires, one of whom detached himself from his post by the door and went across to Douglas. “Will you come this way Sir?” He led Douglas to a bank of Lifts and pressed the ‘open’ button.
Once inside the small cramped box, which was designated for use by ‘2 Persons Only’, the Commissionaire selected one of the three operating buttons which’ would send the car on its way. Douglas braced himself for an ascent, instead of which, with a lurch it dropped at an alarming rate causing the liquid lunch to rise’ in his stomach and cause an embarrassing belch, which the Commissionaire appeared not to notice. There was no way of knowing how far the Lift had descended, but with the same dramatic lurch as it had begun so it came to an abrupt halt.
From the Lift Douglas was’ led down a long drab passage, the floor of which was covered in a rubberised material that deadened any footsteps. Along the walls and ceiling ran a number of different coloured pipes from which the occasional hiss of and plop could be heard: It was a sound that reminded Douglas of the Lampson air-tube system’s that were a feature of Co-operative Stores, used to convey cash from the points of sale to a cashier’s office.
At a steel faced door with the number 7 stencilled upon it, the Commissionaire took a key which’ was fastened to a long chain attached to his uniform belt and undid the solitary lock that held the door too. As it swung open on large peg hinges normally associated with vault doors, Douglas could see three men sitting at a long narrow table.
“Good afternoon to you Captain… do come in and take a pew!” Douglas sat down on the solitary chair
“It’s very good of you to come down and see us at such short notice”. It was the man in the middle of the three who’ had spoken. “Shall we begin then?”
The three opened the purple cardboard folder’s that’ were in front of each of them and began to ask Douglas questions in rotation: In the main they seemed to be more about his social life and after-work activities than anything else, which became rather frustrating, especially as some of the questions were being repeated almost as if to trick him?
The session went on for over an hour, during which time Douglas noticed that they never deferred to each other either’ by name, rank or title. He also noticed that the three men were all dressed alike; in three-piece suits of the same colour material, although this could have been a trick of the room’s lighting, a bluish tint from diffused shades. Then, without any warning’ the man in the centre of the trio closed his folder. “Well Duvalet, I expect you are wondering what this has all been about, eh what!” The question, if it was meant as a question, riled Douglas: After all of the form filling and subsequent waiting, followed by this charade of questions gave him to think that there was a lot they had not picked-up about him?
His reaction was typical of the man. The vertical furrows above and either side of the bridge of his nose deepened and came together. The sensual lips hardened and the other nondescript accent in the voice took on the hard round tone of his native Upper Clyde valley. “The name IS DuValet… NOT Duvalet and I attended here today in response to MY application to work in the Ministry of Transport. So far I have yet to hear anything that is relevant to such a post?”
The man in the middle sighed as he arose from his chair and walked around the table to sit on the end of Douglas’s side, “Ah, yes… an interesting name for a Scot, I wonder why the file doesn’t shed any light upon it?”
Smiling slightly, more to himself’ Douglas thought this was a good a time as any to rock the boat a little, “It is no mystery really… You could say the name came about as a true result of the ‘Auld Alliance’, when during that period of our noble history a certain young Scottish Serving Wench dropped her breeches in the favour of a French nobleman’s manservant. The resulting bastard of the liaison carried his mothers’ maiden name, MacDonald, on top of the title of the father’s trade and calling, because the wee Hen did not know his name, and he was away by then with his master fighting you English!”
The man from the middle of the three coughed: “Ahem!” in the way that the English of the higher echelons of society are prone to do in such circumstances to hide any form of embarrassment, “Yes’ that would explain things however… to get on with today. The job which’ you applied for does not actually exist. No. But we do have need of your, ahem’ special skills in the Service”.
He then went on to explain that he was merely a servant of the Crown; a go-between those at the top and those at the bottom’ so as too speak. A middleman, yes that was it’ he was the Middleman in the organisation.
The organisation, as he put it, was evolved’ because of the changing face of Europe and the economics of the country. The Government did not, and could not afford the luxury of a large permanent staff in European countries, whose function it had been in the past was to give and seek back-up information for M.I. Field Officers to work on. Douglas took-in what was being said up to this point, however, before any further information could be disclosed the Middleman said he would require Douglas’s signature on the Official Secret Act document, this he was assured did not amount to a tacit agreement that he would join the Service, albeit as a part-timer.
Once the signature had been secured’ and witnessed by the other two men’ in grey, the Middleman went on to explain the nuts and bolts of how the’ department worked.
Douglas’s brief was to continue with his normal job, however, if he was’ ever going abroad in the course of these activities then he would advise London in a spurious letter: This was never to be done’ by telephone or telex. The envelope, addressed to the Ministry of Transport, would’ be endorsed with a coded reference number so that the mailroom of the Ministry could re-direct it to the proper recipient. The actual letter would carry what appeared on face value to be a commercial reference number, whereas in fact it would be the dates the operative would’ be away – day and month, followed by the location shown by the country’s vehicle registration plate – NL for Netherlands etc. etc. and the town by the letters translated into numerals. It was a relatively simple code to operate and would not excite the interest other than those for whom it was’ intended.
If the operative’s services were required a letter would be sent back poste haste acknowledging receipt, with a reference number which’ would be a local telephone number for the operative to contact once they were on location.
The time was now approaching 4.00 pm. An hour by which all senior civil servants in the Capitol would have scurried off to the Home Counties and their nuptial retreats. Consequently, with Douglas now agreeing to be ‘with them’ the remaining details were’ quickly dealt with. A ‘retainer’ fee and expenses were agreed, the payment of which would be via Visa card drawn on the Royal Bank of Scotland; naturally receipts would be required to keep the Treasury happy? It was stated.
That brought the interview’ to an abrupt end, and to a man the four participants got to their feet. As they shook hands Douglas could not resist one last barb,
“Well gentlemen it has been a pleasure meeting with you, although I am at a loss to know your names?” The Middleman quickly interjected with one of his little nervous coughs, “There’s no need for names DuValet… this gentleman, shall we say is our Psychiatrist, and the other is shall we say our Liaison with higher authority in Military Intelligence at the M.O.D. And of course, being as we have touched upon it, you may refer to me as ‘Middleman’, and it is to me that you will always defer!” He went to open the door,
“Oh dear me… I almost forgot, your reference number… it is –4711, you will remember to use it at all times wont you dear boy!”
Douglas looked puzzled, “Minus four seven eleven… what does that signify?”
The ‘Liaison’ answered the question curtly, “The minus four is the underground level we are at now. Number seven is Middleman’s office and you are operative eleven”. Douglas gave him a conciliatory smile, “Don’t I get a double O prefix?”
With an expressive sigh the Psychiatrist sat down, almost dejected as if he had explained this a thousand times before.
“No… we don’t use those gimmicks in the Service, maybe in films or other Services but not ours. Your job, and after all you are only a civilian, and part-time at that, is getting the information we ask of you. There are no guns or weapons of any kind required, I hope that is understood?” He waited, as if expecting a reply, and when none was forthcoming’ he continued “…there is one small point, a question remains in the back of my mind. When we considered your aptitude for our work we took into account your’ past activities, both vocal and literal on many subjects that you thought were unjust. For instance Rhodesia, or was it all to do with that incident in Vienna?”
The sudden metallic scream of the train’s brakes, and swift deceleration brought Douglas back from his dreams: Dreams that had wandered’ from that initial interview with the Ministry to Vienna and back again to those three simple words – incident in Vienna. He had not replied to the question as it was’ then posed; it was a very private memory, a memory not to be shared with anyone.
By now’ the train had come to a halt in Linz Station. Soon, very soon, it would continue on the final two hours of its journey to Vienna. Although it had been a long consuming journey by train from London, Douglas preferred it to air travel. Hitherto you caught the train from Victoria to Dover Western Dock, from where the Belgian Marine Passenger Ferry conveyed you to Oostende.
After disembarking you simply walked through Immigration Control directly onto the Station Platform where the Vienna bound train awaited. There were’ no changing of trains en-route, just a pleasant twenty-four journey during which you took dinner in a splendid restaurant car before settling down for the night through Belgium into Germany.
Today things have changed in the name of progress. You board a train in London which’ speeds through a tunnel into France and then onto Brussels, where you have to leave the train for the connections through to Vienna. In Douglas’s opinion’ it was no improvement on what had been a classic mode of travel; but there was no longer any Belgian Marine which’ connects with the train from Victoria at Dover’s Western Dock.
That has gone together with the long proud tradition it had for carrying the Mail between the Continent and United Kingdom in the best and worst of weather conditions. The Western Dock was being developed for the cruise ships and there is talk of some new fast ferries, but Douglas did not have a clue how one would make a connection with them by train, it was a facet of travel which had no interest to him in his normal course of business.
The only time he considered using the present train service was on occasions’ such as this. When it was more fortuitous to carry in ones luggage certain metal implements which he had found necessary for his defence despite what Middleman and his cohorts had said about there being ‘no danger’, and which were illegal and would have shown-up on the airport security checks.
How wrong can anyone be? For despite the assurances there had been those moments when danger was afoot and Douglas’s’ training in small arms as a Captain during military service came to the fore.
To do this he had obtained a certain type of revolver, made in Birmingham by the same company whose claim to fame was that they had also made the gun that killed Jessie James, amongst others, in the Wild West. He also sported a swordstick that had been used’ by his Grandfather as a stage show ‘prop’ in his illusion act.
Together these two items formed his unofficial armoury, and either one, or both were’ carried in his luggage when on ‘call’ by the Department in London. Consequently overland modes of travel always took precedence with him after due consideration as to what air travel could offer.
This he had concluded was very little, unless, like some of his erstwhile associates in the travel industry, you had a demonic interest in the bum of the airhostess as she bent over to serve someone: And they also’ nowadays were not the same. How could any hot-blooded’ young buck get excited by the girls in the now drab uniform of British Airways?
This not withstanding there was nothing to see through the windows, or portholes to be accurate, and you would probably end-up sitting next to some boring arse-hole who should not be let out of the country yet alone have a Passport. No, all things considered’ the overland way was best. On this particular occasion’ Douglas had chosen to bring only his revolver, which was tucked’ away in the bottom of his American-style travel bag. The swordstick he felt might have been a little ostentatious for Vienna, but then you could never tell with Vienna: Remember the last time… the last time…
The motion of the train as it got underway once more lulled him back into the land of dreams; where the mind is balanced on that thin line between present and past: Where incidents confuse and then weld together in a hodgepodge of memories and thoughts.
Thoughts of how he never used the style and title of Captain: That was only done by close friends, and those who thought they were being clever when they were taking the ‘piss’ in their abstract ignorant humour. Now the Department, the men in grey suits in London, used only the surname DuValet, never Mister, Captain or Douglas DuValet – only DuValet.
Other associates in business and slight friends he had made en-route through time also knew him simply as Douglas: Short, sweet and uncomplicated, and not too close that is how he liked it.
There was one exception however: One special memory though, in Vienna, where one special person had not called him Douglas in the hard form. She had breathed the name Dou…glass; drawing out the ‘glass in a long low breath.
Oh’ those memories…memories… memories.