Table of Contents
Chapter 24, part 2 appeared
in issue 146.
Chapter 24: London, England
They went to Woodstock first. Their driver waited in the car while they strolled around the grounds of Blenheim Palace. The passionate young student of history told Carla a little of the life and times of Churchill, and she listened with care and attention.
Then they sat back and enjoyed their Cotswold tour. The driver provided an expert commentary as he took them to Chipping Norton and on through the beautiful villages of Moreton-in-Marsh, Broadway, Stow-on-the-Wold, Upper and Lower Slaughter, Bourton-on-the-Water and Burford.
Then they picked up the main road to Oxford.
They arrived soon after five. The sky was clear and it was still light, but dusk would be coming on quite soon. The driver handed Toni a simple plan of the streets and the colleges, and gave them a short tour around the city centre to let them get their bearings. Then, at Toni’s request, he dropped them off at Carfax, the central cross-roads, and agreed to meet them back there exactly two hours later.
They strolled down the glorious High Street, branching off several times to discover one beautiful college or university building after another. The architecture and the stonework impressed Carla almost as much as they enthralled Toni.
As they approached the end of The High, they could see the elegant tower of Magdalen College rising above the river bridge. They reached the college entrance, and as they peered in through the gates, a voice behind them said quietly ‘Would you like to have a quick look inside?’
‘Oh yes, we would,’ said Toni, turning and seeing a well-intentioned but obviously under-informed chap sitting on a bicycle. ‘But the notice over there says that the college is closed to visitors now. Every college we’ve looked at seems to be closed by this time of day! I’m afraid we’ve left it all a bit late ...’
‘Follow me,’ said the cyclist, locking his bike to the gates. ‘I’m an Old Member ...’
The gentleman nodded to the Head Porter as they passed through the lodge, and the Porter smiled back politely. And Toni and Carla were then given a personal, thirty-minute sunset tour of one of Oxford’s greatest treasures. They saw the ancient and the modern quadrangles, and they admired the Chapel and the Cloisters. Finally they emerged onto the open lawns in front of the broad façade of the New Building.
‘It’s still called that to this day,’ said their friend, who was obviously devoted to his Alma Mater. ‘It was actually built in 1733. And beside it, over to the left ... well, take a look ...’
Then Toni and Carla were delighted to see before them, in the twilight heart of the great university city, a large natural park populated with nearly forty head of beautiful deer.
There was no more time to spare. They thanked their guide profusely, and Toni offered him a small cash gift. ‘No, no, no,’ he said, ‘it was my pleasure. But perhaps you can put it in the Appeal Fund box when we get back to the lodge. Then it will help to keep the college and its students going for another five hundred and fifty years!’
Toni dug deep, and his donation was three times the amount he had prepared as a tip. Then he and Carla hurried back up to Carfax, and made their rendezvous with only three minutes to spare.
* * *
‘I really enjoyed this afternoon, Toni,’ said Carla, as they sped back towards London. ‘Thank you very much.’ And she blew him a big kiss.
Toni blushed, of course.
‘So did I, Carla. It was great to have your company. Now ... how are your energy levels ...?’
‘Still quite high!’
‘OK ... I really fancy a Saturday night on the town! I want to go down to Soho, have a great meal, and then find a really good music bar — and I insist on staying with you all the time, this time.’
Carla laughed. ‘It’s a deal, Toni!’
Toni sat back and smiled. It had been days since Carla had seen such contentment on his face.
‘And Toni ...’
‘Quo and I would both like to apologise to you. I should not have behaved as I did after what happened in Amsterdam — and we should have been more understanding and supportive of you after the incident in Paris. So, Toni ... we are truly, very sorry. We recognise how valuable you are to us, and we want you properly back in our team. And I am so happy to have seen Paris in your eyes ...’
Toni was lost for words, so he sat thinking for several minutes.
‘Carla ... how did you know about Amsterdam?’
‘How did you know, Toni, that I needed help earlier today?’
* * *
As Toni and Carla were getting out of their car outside the Bayswater hotel (‘... and don’t forget the CD player, Toni!’), The Hon. Jeremy James Farant was greeting a very old friend at his London club.
Tomorrow was Sunday, so the bishop’s diary was full for that entire day. But he had agreed to Jeremy’s invitation, at short notice, to a little chat over an evening meal (‘... mind you, I mustn’t be late home ... I’ve got a sermon to finish!’), and he was wondering with considerable interest what might have prompted the obvious urgency of this discreet tête-à-tête.
It was Jeremy Farant, however, who gained considerably more insight into the thinking of his equally venerable dinner partner that evening.
* * *
Toni got showered and changed, and at nine he met up with Carla outside the hotel. The Tube would be too risky for her at that hour on a Saturday night. So they grabbed a taxi. ‘Covent Garden,’ said Toni to the cabby, without a second thought.
They got out by the Underground station on Long Acre, and walked down James Street. The place was heaving.
‘We might have some problems here,’ shouted Toni, above the general background noise.
‘I’ll manage,’ Carla shouted back. ‘If they don’t like what they bump into, they’ll just have to cope with it!’
Toni grinned. Then he spent a few minutes searching for a good place to eat. Finally he plumped for the Crusting Pipe ... down in the lower courtyard of the old market, with a string quartet playing lovely classical pieces ... a really relaxing environment. He found an empty table, asked Carla to mind it for him, then went inside and ordered his meal and a glass — ‘actually, two large glasses, please ...’ — of fine red wine.
‘Isn’t this just perfect, Carla?’
‘Well, I won’t say “yes”, Toni, because that would mean it couldn’t get any better!’
* * *
Toni’s stomach was full, and the alcohol had done its work.
‘Right, lover ... it’s my twelfth night! Let’s go where the music plays on!’
They walked off down King Street, turned into Garrick Street, and then Toni followed his nose. They reached Leicester Square station, and he turned right into Charing Cross Road. When they got to Shaftesbury Avenue, he automatically turned left ... his sensors must have been stuck on Piccadilly Circus. But he soon recovered his drift, and after a while he turned right again into a side street. And there he found just the sort of music bar he was looking for ... with a live jazz-funk band due to start their set in only ten minutes’ time!
Toni breezed up to the door. ‘For two, please ...’
‘Hey, man, you’re jokin’, right? Place is sold out ...!’
Toni sighed deeply, took out his wallet, and started again.
‘All right ... how much?’ ... ‘OK ... but you don’t frisk the lady!’
They were then shown to the very best table in the club, and they had the night of their lives together.
Toni was particularly impressed by the band’s keyboard player. It was obvious he was completely blind, but he had the finest “feel” and sense of rhythm that Toni had ever heard.
And at one point, in a break between their pieces, the singer, who was no novice himself and very versatile, but normally confined himself to the latest cool sounds and rhythms, spotted Carla sitting at the celebrity table close to the small stage, and was unwittingly entranced by her happy smile. He turned round and mouthed two words to the rest of the band. Then, as the simple but irresistible bass guitar line kicked in, he went down on his knees in front of Carla and broke into a perfect rendition of the first verse of Cliff Richard’s Living Doll.
Toni and Carla alone were able to enjoy the perfect, wonderful, unintended joke.
* * *
They took a cab back to the hotel, arriving well after one o’clock. But they were both still in excellent spirits ...
‘See you in the morning, Toni?’
‘Oh, no ...’ he groaned. ‘Surely not that early ... please!’
‘OK.’ Carla was in the mood to compromise. ‘Twelve, then? At the pub next door?’
‘Make it a bit later!’
* * *
So they lunched at half-past noon. As Toni got stuck in to his burger, and Carla enjoyed the spring sunshine, he remembered their discussion on the train to Villach.
‘Carla, you never did tell me about your other hobbies ... apart from your music. Indulge me, while I’m busy eating!’
‘There are many things that you simply would not be able to conceive, Toni. But ... well, I have noticed that here on Earth, the game of Chess seems to be popular and widespread. We have a very similar game on Dome, and I have developed fair skill at it.’
‘Tell me more ...’ munched Toni.
‘Well ... Doman Chess is played by virtually being all sixteen pieces at once, and experiencing in your mind all the agonies and the ecstasies of the battle, absolutely.’
‘Wow! That sounds very painful! But wait a minute ... you Domans can read each other’s minds, can’t you? So how can you possibly keep your tactics secret?’
‘Yes, we can hear each other’s thoughts, when we choose to, Toni ... but only in direct “line of sight” — although we do not need to actually look at one another to do so. And by the way, our leaders cannot hide themselves away and plot in secret. No Doman can hold any position of power without being regularly and literally in the public eye.’
‘So do the two players at Doman Chess need to be located in separate places?’
‘Yes ... or at least separated by a special barrier screen.’
‘That’s fascinating, Carla.’ Toni was really enjoying his burger. ‘But are the rules the same as ours?’
‘Well, I haven’t made a thorough study of the differences, Toni! I really only know what you have revealed to us about your own version. It seems very similar to ours. The aim is the same ... to protect your Queen against all comers, and to try and stifle your opponent’s Queen ...’
‘Hang on, Carla ... in our game it’s your King who needs to be protected, and the other King who must be defeated ...!’
‘On Dome, Toni, it is most definitely the Queen.’
‘Oh! ... Right ... OK ... So, you’re quite good at it, eh?’
‘I have had my successes, Toni. But I am no great champion. We do have one on board the Mater, though! Quo is an Inter-regional Grandmistress.’
‘Ah, Carla, excuse me ... the word is actually Grandmaster.’
‘No, Toni, I do mean Grandmistress ...’
‘You mean Quo is a woman?’
Carla paused, trying to gauge Toni’s likely reaction to what she had to say next.
‘Toni — I suggest you swallow that mouthful straight away ... that’s better — Toni, all Domans are female.’
Toni’s physical reaction was predictable, but he was naturally speechless yet again.
‘But there’s no need to let it worry you, carísimo,’ said Carla, who was clearly an Inter-regional champion of understatement. ‘Let’s go and enjoy the concert. We’ll talk more about it another time ...’
* * *
The Hon. Jeremy James Farant was eating only a few miles away, at the country house of his colleague the Cabinet Minister. Not a colleague in government, of course ... Jeremy most definitely batted for the opposition. But a brother-in-moral-arms, who had been delighted with Jeremy’s unexpected call suggesting a swift gin and tonic at their golf club, but had insisted on converting it into a light lunch (‘... I’ve already started making it ... it’s smoked salmon, if that’s all right ... there’s far too much here for me to manage on my own!’).
After the very surprising revelations, the previous evening, of the bishop’s true thinking on several topics, Jeremy was not relishing this second assignment. So he had decided not to smile too sweetly until the salmon and the fine salad accompanying it had been enjoyed and washed down with a very pleasant white Burgundy.
Then he switched on his new-found super-charm, and was soon even more astounded than he had been the night before.
* * *
The concert had just begun as Toni and Carla walked into Hyde Park.
It was not one of the big-name, sell-out “park parties” which had become so popular again in recent years. Many of those would be held in cities across Britain later in the summer, when there would be a fair chance of good weather to make things enjoyable for the crowd and tenable for the technicians. Today’s, dubbed the “Spring Rock Revival”, was more of a warm-up for the real thing — and it was all for charity.
Very few of the acts on the bill were well-known, and many were basically “tribute bands” dedicated to the music of one or other famous rock group of the sixties, seventies or eighties. But they would all be decent musicians, and although they were not being paid any fee, they would be having fun and getting free exposure. There would also be bucket collections and raffle draws going on all day for the officially nominated charities, to boost any profit from the modest ticket price.
The event had been finalised at quite short notice, after the organisers had studied the medium-range weather forecasts and decided to take a chance. Their bet had paid off — the day was warm and dry with little breeze.
‘Perfect!’ smiled Toni, as they strolled across the grass towards the distant stage. He had already managed to put Carla’s stunning revelation to the back of his mind for the rest of the day.
They picked up something for Toni to eat and drink later, and found a nice little space to sit down in — not too near the stage, where it was very crowded. Then they relaxed and enjoyed the music for the whole afternoon.
At one point, some ageing hippies appeared and arranged themselves in a rough circle nearby. They were dressed for the occasion in very well-preserved old gear, and were smoking something to match. After a while, one of them looked across at Toni and Carla, smiled serenely, and intoned: ‘You don’t know what you missed, man ...’
‘Well, I think I can imagine,’ said Toni, nodding contentedly.
‘No ...’ said the happy hippie, frowning and shaking his spaced-out head violently in profound sympathy for the bad timing of Toni’s birth. ‘No, you had to be there ...’
The seating plan of the group of hippies was the exception. Almost everybody near them in the crowd was, just like Toni, facing forwards to watch the performances, and taking little notice of people beside or behind them.
But Carla was an observer by nature and profession, and she had amused herself from time to time by having a good look all around, even though the eyes of her human image were still trained on either Toni or the stage ahead. During the third of these virtual excursions, she spotted, not far behind them, a face that she recognised.
‘Excuse me, Toni. I’m just going for a little walk on my own. Don’t go away!’
‘I’m not going anywhere, Carla! But don’t get lost yourself!’
Carla stood up and walked carefully back between several little clumps of people. She stopped beside a woman who was sitting cross-legged on her own, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat pulled down low over her forehead, and clearly immersed in the sounds of the music of her youth. With no human inhibitions to restrain her, Carla crouched down, smiling quite naturally, and whispered ‘Hello! It’s good to see you here!’
‘Sshhhh ...’ was the equally smiling and whispered reply. ‘Thank you! But it’s my afternoon off! My few hours of rest and anonymity!’
‘Of course! It’s just that ... well, I have a friend ... you met him the other day ... but he was so nervous and shy ...’
‘Is he here today?’
‘Yes, just over there, look ...’
‘Oh yes, I do remember! OK — tell him he can come over for a little chat if he likes ... but, please, very discreetly ...!’
* * *
Carla and Toni finally left the park at eight o’clock, as the last band was playing and the evening spring time chill was taking hold. Toni was flying high up in the clouds, but filled with a beautiful warmth from his head to his toes. Carla was feeling pretty good, too. She wished she could kiss Toni goodnight.
Instead, she had to settle for joining him in his room at nine the next morning. He was clearly readying himself for some more touring.
‘Hi, Carla. Another nice day. Coming for a walk?’
‘Yes, please. It’s about time I saw a bit of tourist London with you. But you’d better do your packing first, and get a good breakfast. We’ll be meeting up again with our friend Jeremy at twelve (but I won’t need any music, and I won’t be disappearing!) ... and we’ll probably have to move on very quickly after that ...’