Amiss put yet another question mark beside yet another name on his long list and groaned. He picked up the receiver and dialled a Dublin number. ‘Robert Amiss here. May I speak to Mr McCorley?’
‘’Fraid not, Robert. You’re after missing Roddy. He’s just this minute stepped out to church.’
‘Will he be long?’
‘You wouldn’t know. It depends on if they’re doing the works.’
‘Loads of priests and communion and all.’
Amiss found it odd that a senior civil servant should absent himself from his desk in the middle of a weekday morning to pursue his religious duties. But then, he was finding much that was strange in his new-found incursion into Anglo-Irish relations. ‘Ah, I see. He’s gone to mass.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ Amiss retreated into shambling English embarrassment. ‘How terrible. Was it someone very close?’
‘Oh, not at all. ’Twas only the Minister’s granny. But you know how it is.’
Though Amiss didn’t, he said, ‘I see. Could you put me through then to Mr McGarrity?’
‘Sure isn’t Joe after going to the same funeral?’
‘Johnny’s gone an’ all. There’s no one in this division this morning only me, ’cause you see what with the Dublin Castle reception last night, they all had to miss the removal.’
‘The removal of the remains.’ ‘The remains?’
‘The remains of the Minister’s granny. Do ye not bury people in England?’
‘We do. But clearly we don’t take funerals as seriously as you do. Well then, in their absence, do you think you could help me, Miss…?’
‘God, you’re terrible formal. I’m Maureen. But I’d say I couldn’t help you. Amn’t I only the temp?’
Amiss’ other phone rang. ‘Just a moment please, Maureen, till I answer that.’ He leaned over and pressed the speaker button. ‘Hello. Robert Amiss.’
‘We’ll go a couple of days early,’ boomed Baroness Troutbeck. ‘I’ll show you Ireland.’
‘What are you talking about? I’m up to my eyes as it is. I can’t possibly take any time off before the conference.’
‘Balls. You’re getting your knickers in a twist over nothing.
You should have it all done by now.’
‘Shut up a minute, Jack. I’m on the other line. Call me back in a few minutes, will you?’ He winced at the hopeless tone in which he made his plea. This would hardly impress Maureen.
‘Can’t. Going into a meeting. Anyway someone’s already booking our tickets.’
‘Jack, the arrangements are very complicated. Not to say sensitive. I can’t abandon ship.’
She cut in. ‘Never heard anyone make so much fuss about pulling a gaggle of Paddies together. Read them the riot act and tell them to get a grip. Like we should have done years ago.’
The phone went dead. Amiss returned to Maureen.
‘I heard,’ she said. ‘Tactful, isn’t he, whoever he is. Didn’t think anyone called us Paddies any more. Who is he anyway?’
‘She,’ said Amiss grimly, ‘is for the present moment my boss. Her name is Baroness Troutbeck. She is the key player in a conference intended to resolve some of the sensitive cultural issues in Anglo-Irish relations.’
There was a brief pause at the other end of the line. ‘Well, shite and onions,’ giggled Maureen. ‘That should make for great gas.’
‘Another fine mess she’s gotten you into.’
Amiss glared across the table at his friend Detective Sergeant Pooley. ‘You’ve got some crust saying that, considering how many fine messes you’ve gotten me into in your time. You’re just jealous that these days she’s wrecking my life with even greater regularity than you used to. Or maybe you’re jealous for other—darker—reasons.’
Pooley flushed. ‘That was a remark in very bad taste, Robert. On two fronts.’
‘Two? Oh, sorry. I do apologize. I was intending to be offensive on one front only. I certainly wasn’t intentionally making a stupid pun based on the fact that the girlfriend you inherited from Jack…’
‘And from you,’ said Pooley grimly.
‘Doesn’t count, Ellis. ’Twas but a fling, as you well know. Anyway I was not making a stupid pun about Mary-Lou being black. Unlike Jack, I do not spend my entire existence trying to stir people up. So let me try to answer your implicit question. The answer is the same as always. I was jobless, my defences were down and being the malleable creature I am, I was once again fair game for someone tempting me with what seemed an entertaining project.’
‘Which is exactly?’
Amiss swallowed his last mouthful of steak too quickly, choked and then washed it down with the remains of his claret.
‘You’d do better,’ said Pooley kindly, as he leant across the table and refilled Amiss’ glass, ‘if you didn’t try to talk and eat at the same time.’
Amiss cast an incredulous glance at him. ‘Do you ever wonder, Ellis, how we manage to be friends? Very well, then. As you can see, I have cleared my plate, so I’m now free to tell you about my involvement in organizing and running this Anglo-Irish conference on cultural sensitivities.’
He paused. ‘Well, to be accurate, it’s Anglo-British really, I suppose, since someone decided to bring in a smattering of other Celts. The idea is that the peoples of these two islands—the Irish from both traditions as well as the English, Scots and Welsh— should learn better to appreciate each other’s cultures.’
‘What about our resident Asians and West Indians and Chinese and Africans and…?’
‘You’re being a touch cosmopolitan, Ellis. Asian and Caribbean culture isn’t big yet on the Celtic fringe. We’re starting nice and easy with just four lots of peoples who’ve been at each other’s throats for centuries.’
‘Particularly the English and the Irish.’
‘Well, yes and no. The Catholic Irish have hated the English and the Protestant Anglo-Irish, certainly, though not necessarily vice-versa. But the English and the Welsh have always hated each other. The Protestants of Northern Ireland are mostly Scots and hate the English as well as the Irish, and the Scots look down on everyone and since getting their own parliament to swank importantly in, have become as militant as the Micks. In the middle of this the poor old English are always wondering why people get so excited and why everybody else can’t be sensible. You have no idea. But no idea! I never came across so many people with chips on their bloody shoulders. It’s going to be murder.’
‘That would be par for the course in any project in which you’re involved.’
‘Figure of speech, Ellis. Even Celts don’t murder each other at conferences. Though, God knows, I might strike a blow on behalf of us Anglo-Saxons. The Irish are already driving me crazy by living up to several aspects of their national stereotype—particularly the “charming but unreliable.” Nobody fills in forms or answers letters, they ring up when it suits them, usually to try to complicate things, and I’ve a nasty feeling there’s an idea abroad that this is essentially a useful freebie to which to send their dumbos.’
He drummed his forehead in frustration. ‘And then there’s MOPE.’
‘An acronym of the “Most Oppressed People Ever”—a nickname for republicans which in this case applies to their cultural stormtroopers. I thought everyone knew it.’
‘I pay as little attention to Irish politics as is humanly possible.
If they’re not bombing London, I forget about them.’
Amiss sighed. ‘Great. It’s exactly that attitude among our politicians that encourages MOPE’s mates to bomb London if they’re craving attention.’ He leaned forward and poured himself some more wine.
‘God, what a pain in the arse they are. It’s bad enough that they’re such a whingeing, aggressive bloody crew, but then on top of that you have to put up with their PC concerns about gender balance and parity of esteem with every other shagging delegation regardless of importance, size or consequence. I swear they’ll probably measure the bedrooms to make sure no one’s got a square foot more than them.’
‘The whingeing seems to be contagious.’
‘Stop being so unsympathetic. I haven’t even told you about DUPE yet.’
‘It’s what my new friend Simon Gibson—my Northern Ireland civil service go-between—calls MOPE’s loyalist equivalents. You know, those fringe working-class Prods…’
‘Local argot for Protestants. DUPEs are the ones with paramilitary mates—stands for “Downtrodden Unionists for Parity of Esteem”. They’re serious students of MOPE tactics and employ them to good effect in their own attention-seeking efforts.’
‘It all sounds delightful.’
‘I expect there will be consolations—like seeing how they all get on with Jack.’
‘How did Jack of all people get involved in this anyway? I thought she was dead against conferences, do-goodery and diplomacy—not to speak of the Irish, Scots and Welsh.’
‘Exactly. That’s why it should be entertaining. Turns out it’s ages since she’s been to Ireland and she jumped at the opportunity on the grounds that it would be fun, especially since it offered the chance to knock a few heads together.’
‘But why would anyone want her? Don’t they realize what she’s like?’
‘All I know is that Jack had some late-night drinking session at the Lords with a visiting Irish delegation who were so taken by the general jollity and her enthusing about her girlhood excursions to the Emerald Isle that her name was fed into the official channels as an acceptable English co-chairman of the conference. Simon tells me they had had such problems in finding anyone the Irish would accept that they’d have agreed to exhume Dr Crippen if the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs had suggested him.’
‘Who’s the other chairman?’
‘A superannuated Irish politician of an indolent disposition who will always take the line of least resistance.’
‘You mean he’ll let Jack push him around.’ ‘Even more than everyone else does.’ ‘Sounds grim. Rather you than me.’
‘That’s always the case, Ellis. Though you’ve been quick enough in the past to join in when things got interesting. I’ve become fatalistic. Even agreed to let Jack take me on a skite beforehand to show me Ireland.’
‘I thought she hadn’t been there for years.’
‘She alleges she knows it well. Parts of it, anyway. There are relatives somewhere in the west. Anyway, after the hassle of the last few weeks, I suppose I need a break before I face Moycoole Castle.’
‘Ah well,’ said Pooley. ‘If it all gets too bad, remember you can always lie back and think of England.’
# # #
‘It may be a holiday for you. It certainly doesn’t look like being one for me,’ grumbled Amiss as he fell exhausted into an armchair in the airport lounge. ‘I’ve had more crises in the last couple of days than you’ve had scandalous liaisons.’
‘Rubbish,’ said the baroness. ‘You’re making a big fuss about something very simple. Besides, after a few days with me you’ll be ready for anything.’
‘That in itself is a sufficiently dubious proposition, without my having to, as you put it, “holiday” while lugging a laptop and mobile phone in a vain attempt to stop all or any of these Celtic loonies from wrecking this ludicrous conference.’
‘“Holiday” is not a verb. Now stop going on and get me a snipe of champagne.’
‘I’m not your batman, Jack,’ said Amiss, nevertheless, from sheer habit, rising to obey.
‘You’re always complaining. Haven’t I got you into first class?
Most batmen would be touchingly grateful.’
He grinned. ‘I grant you that was a fine performance at the check-in desk. Do you think she upgraded us because you’re a baroness, because of your preposterous whispering about hush-hush peace-related secret negotiations or…’
‘Neither. She fancied me. Didn’t you notice the way she kept eyeing me?’
‘It seemed like disbelief rather than lust from where I was standing. I think she found you sartorially overwhelming.’
‘That’s the idea,’ she said, complacently smoothing the left sleeve of her emerald green tweed suit. Amiss surveyed her from the top down, taking in the trilby, its crowning pheasant feather, the vast Celtic brooch, the pale green chiffon blouse with an enormous cascading bow, the thick green stockings and the stout brown brogues with an external tongue.
‘Presumably you set out to create an understated effect?’
‘You think I should have added a shillelagh for good measure? Quite a good idea now I come to think of it. I’d better pick one up on the way. Might come in handy.’
‘I hate to be critical about your fashion statement, but isn’t there a possibility the Irish might think you’re taking the piss?’ ‘Me?!’ She seemed outraged. ‘All I’m doing is making obeisance to their dotty preoccupations with symbols and all that.
Hence the jewellery and assorted greenery.’
‘Do you have a similar treat in store for the Orange contingent?’
‘No. When in Rome and all that. We’re on Free State soil…’ ‘Jack, will you for God’s sake get the terminology right. This has been the Republic of Ireland since 1949. It’s only rabid republicans who think they should be running it and mad loyalists who want to insult it, who call it the Free State these days, and then only as a term of abuse.’ ‘God, you’re so pedantic.’
‘You’d be pedantic if you’d had all the crap about why nationalists are outraged if you say Ireland is in the British Isles, refer to Britain as the mainland or call the Republic Eire as unionists do, while unionists are outraged if you call Northern Ireland the north as nationalists do or a statelet or the occupied six counties as republicans do.’
Her attention had wandered to a passing young brunette. ‘Jack!’
She reluctantly returned to the conversation. ‘As I was saying, the point is that the Orange brigade will swiftly be aware that I’m on their side rather than that of the Fenians* so there’s no need for me to don sashes and bowler hats and start whistling “God Save the Queen.”’
* The Fenians were a nineteenth-century revolutionary organization: ‘Fenian’ is a term of abuse for republicans, which they wear as a badge of pride.
‘Your subtlety does you credit, Jack.’ She beamed.
# # #
As he twisted the top off the second small bottle, Amiss’ phone produced its tinny version of the Sailor’s Hornpipe. ‘Hello. Yes, Seoirse. What can I do for you?…No…no…I can’t tell you that…Because the numbers keep changing…No. They’re not the criteria we’re using…No, we can’t change them now…Everyone else has agreed…Fine, fine, fine. By all means. As it happens, she’s right here.’ He smiled grimly as he passed the phone over to the baroness. ‘It’s Seoirse MacStiopháin of MOPE wishing to speak to higher authority. He’s got a grievance.’
The baroness sank back in her chair, put her feet on the coffee table, took a large draught of champagne and jammed the phone to her ear. ‘Troutbeck. What’s the matter? What! Nonsense! Absolute balls! Your electoral mandate no more dictates the number of seats you get at this conference than how many seats you get to a Pavarotti concert…What?…Why? Because I’m in charge, that’s why. I decide who gets invited. And if you don’t like that you can bugger off and we’ll do fine without you.’ She handed the phone back to Amiss. ‘Turn it off.’
Agitatedly, Amiss grabbed the phone. ‘Seoirse, Seoirse. Are you there?’ He switched off. ‘He’s gone. That’s it then. We won’t have MOPE. And after all the trouble I went to persuade them to come.’
The baroness rolled her eyes upwards. ‘God save me from half-witted, credulous liberals. Of course MOPE will come. They never want to stay out of anything. It’s just that they seek every concession they can get by playing rough with appeasing simpletons like you. Smack of firm government, that’s what these sods need. Pity we abolished national service. That would have sorted them out.’
‘Is not the problem that the military wing of MOPEdom has gone in for a form of national service which has involved them murdering people like you?’
She waved her hand dismissively. ‘I’d like to see them try.’ ‘Don’t tempt fate, Jack. They have friends who just might.’